Why is Quebec fragmenting politically?
Consider. Four parties have members in the National Assembly. A fifth, sixth and possibly a seventh party are at various stages of formation. All this in a province with a “first past the post” electoral system. The more parties running, of course, the more distorted the outcome.
A recent Léger Marketing poll showed that Quebec’s two most popular politicians are François Legault and Pierre Curzi. Mr. Legault, a former Parti Québécois minister, resigned his seat in 2009 but emerged this year as principal founder of a political movement, Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, that proposes to unite people on the basis of an agreement to set aside the issue of secession for 10 years.
Mr. Legault’s intentions to form a party are clear. On Thursday, he held a fundraising cocktail party in Gatineau where attendees contributed $250 each. A CROP-La Presse poll published the same day showed that a party headed by Mr. Legault would win the next election with a majority.
Mr. Curzi, a former actor, was elected as a Péquiste in 2007 but resigned from the party in June, along with PQ icon Louise Beaudoin and Lisette Lapointe, wife of former premier Jacques Parizeau. Both Mr. Curzi and Ms. Lapointe spoke at Sunday’s inaugural public meeting of another political movement that could morph into a party: le Nouveau Mouvement pour le Québec.
It was launched in early July by former Radio-Canada reporter Jocelyn Desjardins, who also resigned from the PQ. Last week, the movement issued a manifesto – Brisons l’impasse (Let’s break the deadlock) – signed by 77 personalities. It outlines a process leading to independence based on holding multiple “constituent assemblies” where citizens would put forward their proposals for the province’s future status. These would then be passed into law by the National Assembly, and Quebec would become an independent country.
Jean-Martin Aussant, another MNA who resigned from the PQ in June, also attended Sunday’s political powwow. But he’s registered the name of another new party: Option Québec. That invokes the title of René Lévesque’s 1967 manifesto proposing “sovereignty association.”
Why are Quebec’s political institutions fragmenting? Because its political culture is contradictory, unrealistic and ruled by impractical myths that lead to deadlock.
The NMQ’s manifesto says: “It was conditionally on the promise of autonomy that Quebec adhered to the 1867 Constitution.” The myth is that Confederation, initially decentralized, became increasingly centralized as Ottawa appropriated powers from the provinces. The reality is precisely the opposite. Ottawa had the power to disallow or hold in reserve any bill passed by any province and did so 68 times in the first decade – but never since 1943. Originally, more than half of all provincial revenues came as transfers from Ottawa. No longer. The combined provinces now spend more than the federal government, the reverse of 1867.
The manifesto proposes “to have adopted by the Quebec government a constitutional law establishing the primacy of the Constitution of Quebec, freely chosen, over the Constitution of Canada, imposed arbitrarily.” That propounds two myths: that Quebec can overthrow the Constitution by a vote of the National Assembly or a plebiscite, and that the 1982 Constitution Act was illegitimate.
In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Quebec could only secede by obtaining the consent of the rest of Canada – that is, a constitutional amendment that incorporates an agreement that reconciles the rights of all the provinces and the rights of minorities. Otherwise, secession is revolution.
Even La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal notes: “Thirty years later, it has to be admitted that the idea of seeing Quebec enter into the Constitution some day by the main door is good and dead.” He assumed that Quebec is outside the Constitution, repeating the myth propounded by Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa. But the Supreme Court declared in 1982 that the Constitution Act was legitimate. Quebec was never outside the Constitution.
Moreover, the Trudeau government had abided precisely by the conditions for patriation set by the Supreme Court in its 1981 ruling that required provincial consensus. Nine provinces assented, but Quebec has flouted ever since the ruling it had sought from the courts.
Yet another myth was articulated by Mr. Marissal: “In Ottawa, as in all the provincial capitals, the constitutional recognition of Quebec is the least of their concerns.” On the contrary, the distinctiveness of Lower Canada was recognized constitutionally in the 1867 act by creating a federation rather than a unitary state and giving the provinces control over education and civil rights. But the myth persists that, unless Quebec has more powers than other provinces, its distinctiveness has not been recognized.
Until Quebec demystifies its political culture and resolves its contradictions, no constitutional solution is possible. And fairy tales will prevail.
William Johnson is an author and former president of Alliance Quebec.