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Quebec's provincial flag flies on a flagpole in Ottawa, July 3, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

What does Quebec want? That has been the question on earnest Canadians’ minds for the better part of four decades. After Wednesday’s session of the provincial legislature, we need speculate no further: What Quebec wants is a flag emoji.

A Parti Québécois motion demanding the internet (specifically, the Silicon Valley-based Unicode Consortium, which decides such things) devise an emoji for the Quebec flag passed by the usual unanimous vote. Party leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said the move would give Quebeckers the “right to express our pride” in tweets and Facebook posts.

Add this, then, to the list of Quebec’s historic demands. Perhaps you thought, having just drafted legislation declaring themselves a nation, the province’s political class would have been sated, pride-wise, maybe even take a break for a bit. But the work of preparing Quebec’s rendezvous with destiny never ceases. Each peak scaled only becomes the base camp for further ascents.

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So no, we still don’t know what Quebec wants, actually. The question can never be answered, because the minute it was – the minute the government of Quebec said: this, this is what we want, this is all we need to be happy – the province would lose its leverage.

People have tried, lord knows: from the Quebec Pension Plan in the 1960s, separate and distinct from the Canada Pension Plan; to agreements to share power over immigration and surrender federal tax points in the 1970s; to the repeated attempts to answer the Quebec question since then – Meech Lake, Charlottetown, asymmetric federalism, the works. None succeeded.

Perhaps the unilateral nature of this latest gambit, encoded in Quebec’s Bill 96 – rather than waiting for the rest of Canada to divine what it wants, Quebec is simply taking it – might seem to hold more promise. But it does not matter who asks the question. What matters is that it cannot be answered.

We should not imagine, however, that the attempt will be without consequences. Much discussion has centred on the possible legal impact of entrenching the language of nationhood – Quebec’s that is; the idea of declaring that Canada is a nation is apparently too absurd to even contemplate – in the Constitution. Certainly the bill’s sponsors seem to believe it will have plenty.

But even as a purely symbolic gesture, as I’ve written before, it is freighted with significance. Whether or not the phrase has legal weight, it is bound to affect how the issue is framed in political debates. Indeed, it already has.

I mentioned previously the implications for the province’s linguistic minorities of formally defining the “Quebec nation” in terms of its “common language,” i.e. the language of the French-speaking majority. But the implications for the country’s unity are even more profound.

There is a reason why all members of the province’s political class, whatever hue they may occupy along the nationalist spectrum, have been so insistent on the phrase. It isn’t some cozy statement of folkloric bonhomie. It is about power, and the basis of political power in popular identity: Before we can decide who leads us, we must first decide who “us” is.

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Suppose first we were to think of Canada as a union of 38 million citizens. Each one of those citizens would have a direct, unmediated relationship with the Canadian state, the same as every other. Each would then be inclined to acknowledge the legitimacy of that state, and to accept its government as their government – even when the decisions of that government went against them.

Majority rule is only possible where the minority is willing to abide by it. But for that to hold, members of the minority must feel they are a part of the same body of people as the majority. If so, the logic of majority rule is inescapable: If every citizen is equal, then the votes of the majority must outweigh those of the minority.

But now let us instead think of Canada as an agreement – a compact, if you like – among two or more nations. Here the equality that matters is not between citizens but between the parties to the agreement. But if they are equal, then it is impossible that the members of one nation should accept to be governed, as they see it, by the other. The whole foundation of majority rule collapses. The most that is possible is a series of tenuous compromises.

That would describe present-day Canada rather succinctly. Fifteen years ago, when the Parliament of Canada passed a motion, at Stephen Harper’s urging, recognizing “the Québécois” as a nation “within a united Canada,” it was widely considered a masterstroke. Surely now Quebeckers would see that they were respected for who they were. Surely now they would be at peace. At any rate, it couldn’t hurt.

Instead what we have witnessed is a continued erosion of federal authority. Not content with demanding the federal government cede more powers to the province, Quebec has lately taken to asserting power over federal institutions: to decide which judges are named to the Supreme Court, to apply provincial language legislation to federally regulated businesses, even to collect federal taxes. Federal leaders have generally complied.

Increasing brazenness versus the feds has been matched by escalating panic in the face of the province’s changing demographics. Several years of debate over how harshly to treat members of observant religious minorities – should they be excluded from any position in the public service, or just some? Should all religious garb be prohibited, or just face coverings? – has given way to a language law whose founding premise is that Bill 101 was not nearly strict enough.

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Is it to be imagined that formal constitutional recognition, with tacit federal acceptance, of the French-speaking majority as a nation will reverse, or even slow this trend? Again: Even if the phrase does not affect how the courts interpret the Constitution, it cannot fail to affect how politicians do. As former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe warned, the day the Harper “nation” resolution passed, Quebec would not be satisfied with mere honourifics. “Nations have rights.”

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