By Peter McKenna (guest opinion)
© Canadian Press photo
Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard waves to supporters during his victory speech, Monday, April 7, 2014 in St-Felicien, Que. Quebecers voted for a Liberal majority government.
It’s curious that the often prickly province of Quebec, at least politically and constitutionally speaking, has been rather quiet these days. True, there has been some chatter about playing a larger role in appointments to the Supreme Court and securing increased equalization payments from Ottawa. But these have mostly been muted voices.
Luckily for us, Quebec now has a provincial premier who has been dubbed “Captain Canada” and has shown himself to be decidedly federalist in orientation. Does that mean that the whole divisive national unity file has been essentially placed in a holding pattern?
If so, what does that mean for Ottawa and federal-provincial relations? And, secondly, what are the implications for Quebec’s place within the Canadian polity?
One could not be faulted for positing another series of questions as well: Are we looking at constitutional peace for the next several years? Can we anticipate a Quebec government that will be in lock-step with the rest of his provincial counterparts? Might we see Quebec’s weight within the federation curtailed?
Could it be possible that we are actually entering a phase not only where intra-provincial relations in this country are more harmonious, but that Ottawa-Quebec interactions will also be more constructive and positive? More important, have we reached a point now where the whole “sovereignty card” has been effectively neutralized?
During the March-April provincial election campaign, then-Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard made no effort to hide his pro-Canada convictions — as past Liberal leaders had done. “I’m a Quebecer first and above all, but I’m among a large number of Quebecers — I suspect the majority of Quebecers — who think the future of Quebec is much better off within the Canadian federation,” he declared proudly.
In his first speech as premier to Quebec’s National Assembly on May 21, Couillard said his province’s voice would be heard within the wider federation. In fact, he maintained that Quebec would play a leadership role in federal-provincial relations through mostly “constructive dialogue” with his provincial colleagues and Ottawa.
Could this be the first federalist Quebec premier who will not have to press ahead with talk of constitutional renewal, additional powers for the province, and, dare I say it, opening up the constitution for protracted negotiations and amendments?
Even during the election campaign itself, Couillard had to quickly back-track when he first raised the possibility of seeking, should he be elected premier, to recognize Quebec’s “distinct identity” within the constitution. There was just no appetite for it among the voting public.
And given the weakness of the Parti Québécois (PQ), which is now plagued by crippling internal inconsistencies and poor poll numbers, there will be plenty of room for Couillard to manoeuvre on the federal-provincial front.
Moreover, voters in Quebec made it very clear that they don’t want to hear any loose chatter about holding another referendum. It’s just not on. In part, that’s why the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa is now on life-support.
So with support for Quebec sovereignty at an all-time low, there is no need for Couillard to pick a fight with Ottawa or to push for some form of mega-constitutional discussions with the rest of Canada. Indeed, there is no real pressure on the Couillard government to adopt a hardline position vis-à-vis Ottawa or the other provinces.
At the same time, this dwindling support for sovereignty and a PQ in disarray removes a huge negotiating hammer from the premier’s hand. His position within Canada has obviously been weakened.
Others around the First Ministers’ table will surely call Couillard’s constitutional bluff, should he attempt to do so. He is not in any shape to extract concessions from Ottawa or to get the provincial premiers to fall into line behind the Quebec government’s agenda. And knowing the political situation on the ground in Quebec, along with Couillard’s avowedly pro-Canada disposition and the clear absence of any serious constitutional threat, they simply don’t have to capitulate.
Put another way, why should Ottawa or the other provinces for that matter feel obligated to meet Quebec’s historic demands? Without the sovereigntist axe hanging over their collective heads, what is the cost of not giving in? Not much, as I see it.
It would seem that Couillard does not even have the ability to rally public sentiment in Quebec around a major constitutional gambit. As a result, has not the hand of the federal government and the provinces not been correspondingly strengthened?
Has not Couillard’s Quebec become more or less like the other provinces in terms of its future wrangling with Ottawa? Has not the constitutional and intergovernmental field, then, been leveled?
I guess that only time will tell for sure. But the initial signs are certainly encouraging from a unity standpoint.
Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.