Quebec has a gift for Canada on its 150th birthday, but the Prime Minister doesn't want to open it.
Premier Philippe Couillard launched what he says will be a vast coast-to-coast consultation he hopes will end with Quebec's signature on a constitutional deal recognizing the province's distinct character and meeting other traditional demands rejected by Canada in the past.
Justin Trudeau wasted no time in shooting down the idea. "You know my views on the Constitution, we are not reopening the Constitution," he told reporters on his way to a cabinet meeting on Thursday.
Mr. Couillard said he is going ahead anyway. In announcing his plan Thursday, 30 years after the doomed Meech Lake constitutional accord was struck, Mr. Couillard asked for patience and suggested the Prime Minister read his 192-page mission statement before taking firm positions.
The document, Being Québécois: It's our way of being Canadians, is a summary of constitutional history. It repeats Quebec's traditional demands and describes how they've evolved, and calls for a national dialogue on how federalism could be reformed to better recognize Quebec, First Nations and Canada's pluralistic modern reality.
Any constitutional wheeling and dealing is a long way off "and just the finish line" for the plan, the Premier said. He said his first aim is to persuade Quebeckers of their own importance to Canada and then to reach out to other partners in Confederation who have drifted apart from his province in recent years.
"A lot of people think this issue no longer exists. The signal I'm sending to the rest of Canada is the issue is still here," Mr. Couillard said. "I want to say to Quebeckers and other Canadians [that] this country was founded fundamentally by two founding people, and today we would say a third, First Nations. There has to be some translation of this in the fundamental text of the country."
Mr. Couillard said he does not believe constitutional fatigue will derail his plan. "I don't know any country that is not interested in talking about itself," he said.
While insisting there would be no brinkmanship in this process, the Premier did say some of the province's traditional demands remain firm, including recognition of its distinct status, a constitutional veto, three guaranteed Supreme Court seats, limits on the federal spending power in provincial jurisdiction and permanently enshrined control over immigration.
Asked repeatedly "Why now?," Mr. Couillard said he sees elevated interest in the French language in Canada and many of the wounds from constitutional wrangling have healed or don't exist among younger Canadians.
Mr. Couillard also faces an election campaign in 18 months and has struggled to maintain his popularity despite a healthy economy. Scandal fallout from the past Liberal government continues to dog him. But he denied that his plan was meant to distract from troubles or provide a new wedge to use against his political opponents – Quebec separatists and nationalists who say he is weak when presenting demands to Ottawa.
Mr. Couillard has long had an interest in constitutional reform but few thought he'd actually try to reach a deal. Before his 2014 election victory, he had said that his dream was to get a constitutional deal, and the 150th anniversary of Canada's founding might present a symbolic window. In the election campaign itself, however, he backed away from the issue, saying his priority was the economy and he's rarely brought it up since.
Mr. Couillard was not finished speaking Thursday when Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall issued a statement saying if Quebec wants to discuss constitutional recognition, he wants to talk about the federal equalization program that shifts Canadian wealth away from Saskatchewan to the tune of $500-million and helps Quebec balance its budget with $11-billion.
"If Quebec is interested in reopening the discussion about Quebec's place in Canada and the Constitution, there are certainly other constitutional issues we would like to discuss," Mr. Wall said.
Other premiers were more circumspect, either avoiding comment or delivering assurances of continued friendship. "Ontario and Quebec have a strong partnership grounded in a shared history within Canada," Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said in a statement. "We remain focused on strengthening our relationship with Quebec to the benefit of Ontarians, Quebeckers and all Canadians."
In the Quebec National Assembly, Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée blasted Mr. Trudeau for shooting down Mr. Couillard's initiative four hours before the Premier presented it.
"The reaction of the Prime Minister is not worthy of the Premier's gesture today," Mr. Lisée said. "He hasn't read [the plan], he doesn't want to read it, he doesn't even want to engage in the conversation."
The Prime Minister's terse comments were quickly followed by similar lines from Liberal ministers in Ottawa who commented before Mr. Couillard's plan was even presented. "We're in 2017, I've moved on to other things," Revenue Minister Diane Lebouthillier said.
Andrew Scheer, the new Conservative Party Leader, espoused a similar line. "Mr. Scheer does not sense that there is an appetite either in Quebec or in the other provinces to reopen the constitutional debate," his spokesman, Marc-André Leclerc said.
However, the federal NDP applauded the move by the Couillard government.