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Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois walks to a news conference during a campaign stop Tuesday, August 7, 2012 in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, Que. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois walks to a news conference during a campaign stop Tuesday, August 7, 2012 in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, Que. (Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Ibbitson

Why a PQ win could give new powers to the rest of Canada Add to ...

The Parti Québécois’ avowed strategy for independence, should it win the Quebec election, is to demand a raft of new powers from Ottawa. If Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses, the party will then use that rejection as the basis for another referendum on sovereignty.

This approach could end up conferring new powers on other provinces, Alberta in particular. The reason is the Calgary Declaration.

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If you’ve ever heard of the Calgary Declaration, you may have forgotten about it by now. Experts on Canadian federalism aren’t sure it’s even alive.

“The Calgary Declaration isn’t dead, but it’s not well,” is how Thomas Courchene, the distinguished political scientist who has just retired from Queen’s University, puts it.

But the accord could be about to have a new lease on life.

In 1997, the premiers gathered in Calgary to craft their own response to Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard’s demand that Quebec be given new powers. At the time, Ralph Klein in Alberta and Mike Harris in Ontario were also at loggerheads with the Chretien government.

The premiers wanted to show that they could contribute to national unity while also standing up for provincial rights. The Calgary Declaration was their solution.

The declaration, which Mr. Bouchard refused to sign, maintained that “all provinces, while diverse in their characteristics, have equality of status.” It recognized “the unique character of Quebec society.” And it insisted that if Ottawa conferred any powers to a province through a constitutional amendment, “these powers must be available to all provinces.”

The third point is the kicker. It asserts that the federal government has no right to make deals with Quebec that don’t apply to Alberta, Ontario or any other province that wants the same deal.

Former PM Paul Martin recognized this principle when he negotiated a health-care accord with the provinces in 2004. He gave oral assurances that the special conditions that applied to Quebec in the accord would also apply to any other province that wanted the same conditions.

Mr. Harper, when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance, condemned the “unique character” clause of the declaration as “a poorly thought-out sop to the separatists.”

But since becoming prime minister, Mr. Harper has recognized the Québécois as a nation within Canada. He is also devoted to the principle of not interfering in provincial jurisdictions.

That principle of non-interference has led to a period of calm on the federal-provincial front, consigning the Calgary Declaration, the Social Union Framework Agreement and other relics of the constitutional wars to dusty shelves.

But now Pauline Marois seeks to foment fresh hostilities. If she gets the chance, old accords could become new again.

Mr. Harper was co-author of the infamous Firewall letter, which demanded more powers for Alberta,. He certainly knows that appeasing the sovereigntists in Quebec would enrage his own supporters and stoke separatist sentiment in his home province.

If a Premier Marois demands that Ottawa hand over, say, complete control of Employment Insurance in Quebec to Quebec, the Prime Minister will simply say no.

But if the political situation becomes so volatile that he is forced to negotiate, he will almost certainly offer other provinces whatever he offers Quebec.

The Calgary Declaration, if not alive and well, is at least sitting up and taking nourishment.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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