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October 24, 2014

Quebec's place in Canada

The Canadian Charger

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Canada's founding fathers gave Ottawa a gift by making it Canada's capital. "Would it not be appropriate for Ottawa to return the favor by becoming officially bilingual?" That was a question posed by Laval Political Science Professor Guy Laforest, speaking on Parliament Hill on October 9 in one of a series of talks sponsored by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson is definitely not prepared to respond affirmatively to his question.

In order to understand his presentation on the topic “Bringing Quebec Back In,” it is useful to know a bit about the man himself. 

Prof. Laforest’s specialty is political philosophy, and he has taken a particular interest in federal systems.  As part of a province with its own language, culture, and traditions, he has felt challenged by what he sees as the country’s inadequate preparedness to make room for Quebec in our country’s institutions and laws.

Because he saw this picture as not likely to change, he was a leading intellectual supporter of independence at the time of the 1995 referendum.  Following the defeat, he became disillusioned with the prospect of Quebec independence and took part in building the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a right-wing party, now defunct, that had a xenophobic and anti-Islamic orientation. 

He was the author of the party’s manifesto and its first president, and he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the Quebec National Assembly.

The view of the party was that the issue of Quebec independence was now passé that the focus instead should be on autonomy within Canada.  All this as background to his talk on the Hill.

While it is widely held that Quebec is one of the world’s most decentralized countries, Laforest argued that that is just half the story.   

In terms of relations between the federal and provincial governments and in terms of the judiciary, it is among the most centralized.  Not surprisingly, he put in a good word for the German federal system, in which all powers not specifically assigned to the federal level in the country’s basic law fall to the Länder.

He now wants to see Quebec in Canada work, but this will, he holds, depend on a constant re-balancing and readapting.  “There is no simple solution.”  On the one hand, he would like to see Quebeckers more involved in federal politics, and on the other he wants federal parties to be more focused on the nature of Canadian federalism and of Quebec’s special place in the system. 

In viewing the actual place of Quebec in Canada’s federal structure, he feels that the way in which the Senate is composed gives reasonable recognition to Quebec, but not so in the House of Commons.  He did not mention the make-up of the Supreme Court, though he should have.

He holds that Quebec’s place in Canada will require good will, tolerance, and accommodation. 

He cited the example of Ian Paisley entering the Northern Ireland unity government with the declaration that there is no room for intolerance.  He also spoke of the successful fund-raising effort in allied countries after World War II to rebuild a landmark Dresden church, an effort in which British and Polish children took part. 

He seems to want some kinds of heart-felt demonstrations from non-Quebeckers that are similarly moving.  He did not mention the visit to Montreal by thousands from outside the province before the referendum to tell Quebeckers that they were truly wanted in Canada.  On the negative side, he noted that in Western Canada he encountered graduate students studying the history of Canadian federalism who did not know French.

In the give-and take of relationship building between Quebec and the rest of Canada, we need, he argued, to be cognizant of the difference between matters that can be settled rationally and those which impinge upon deep cultural meanings.

What was missing from his perspective was the role of individual rights. 

The rights of Quebec and its culture and language were central, but if his side had been victorious in 1995, would hijabs and kirpans been allowed? 

And with Quebec within Canada, should Canada make room to allow Quebec to discriminate against its minorities regarding the deep cultural and religious values and practices that they hold dear?

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