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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

A divided Quebec unites for a (constitutional) fight Add to ...

Quebec is a deeply divided place. The bipolar politics of yore has given way to increasing factionalism that has made governing the province even more complicated than usual.

The newbie on the scene, the Coalition Avenir Québec, promised to rescue the province from the corrosive obsession of constitutional grievance. For a new generation of voters uninvested in identity politics, the CAQ held out the prospect of pragmatic governance and fiscal sanity. But it has failed to transcend the old cleavages and, ironically, has become a refuge for reactionaries.

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The depleted Liberals depend on a shrinking base of anglophones who pine for a Pierre Trudeau and francophone federalists who haven’t forgiven the late prime minister for patriating the Constitution without Quebec’s consent. The recognition of Quebec’s specificity à la Meech Lake accord remains, for the French Liberal faction, the sine qua non of constitutional reconciliation. But pushing for special status only alienates the anti-Meech anglos who deliver lots of Liberal seats.

The party nominally in power, the minority Parti Québécois, has not imploded since its election seven months ago. Luckily for Pauline Marois, the party’s base hasn’t yet grown impatient with the Premier’s soft-sell policy of “sovereigntist governance.” Once it does, Ms. Marois will have to step up her referendum agenda or suffer the fate of all PQ leaders – revolt from within.

One of those jilted former PQ chiefs, Lucien Bouchard, just offered his explanation for why support for separation is in the cellar. Mr. Bouchard, a conservative at heart, told Le Devoir the sovereigntist movement has been hijacked by the left. He’s right. Equating independence with an even more redistributive state is a massive turnoff for the average overtaxed Quebecker.

Yet, any hint by Ms. Marois that a sovereign Quebec would be anything less than a Sweden on the St. Lawrence offends the PQ base and benefits the even more redistributive Québec solidaire. The result of this factionalism is that no party is attracting a stable plurality of voters.

What could break this stalemate? Revelations in historian Frédéric Bastien’s new book, La bataille de Londres, have made constitutional politics relevant again in Quebec. On Tuesday, the National Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution calling on Ottawa to release all documents relating to the 1982 patriation of the Constitution from Britain.

Mr. Bastien tried to get those files through an access-to-information request. He was sent documents so heavily redacted they were insulting. The British were far more forthcoming, providing hundreds of pages of untouched notes and memos. What they revealed should concern every Canadian.

In 1981, most of the provinces opposed Mr. Trudeau’s bid to unilaterally patriate the Constitution and tack on a charter of rights, a concept many then considered incompatible with British parliamentary tradition. The Supreme Court was asked to rule on the legality of a unilateral patriation. The documents obtained by Mr. Bastien show that Margaret Thatcher and her government felt deeply uneasy about Mr. Trudeau’s heavy-handed approach.

Mr. Bastien’s book alleges that, in several conversations with senior officials in the British and Canadian governments, the court’s then-chief justice, Bora Laskin, sought to reassure his interlocutors. Though the court was divided, Mr. Laskin told them it would ultimately “deliver the merchandise” (the expression is Mr. Bastien’s). This apparent violation of the separation of powers is being taken seriously enough that the Supreme Court is reviewing the matter.

Mr. Bastien calls Mr. Laskin’s actions “a fundamental breach of the rules of democracy” that should invalidate the court’s 7-2 decision in favour of unilateral patriation. That may be going too far. But it does raise questions about what would have happened if the premiers had got wind of Mr. Laskin’s conversations. Would the entire process have been discredited?

“The 1982 Constitution was already lacking in legitimacy in Quebec,” says Christian Dufour, one of Quebec’s most clear-eyed political commentators. “This only makes it worse.”

These days, it’s politically taboo to mention the Constitution outside Quebec. Even within the province, there’s no burning desire to take up the fight. The new federal Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, dismisses it all as “old squabbles.”

Mr. Bastien’s book, already in its third printing, suggests otherwise. Quebeckers profoundly believe a wrong was committed in 1982. It would add insult to injury if we failed to correct the historical record.

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