On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insisted that he “long ago” recognized Quebeckers form a nation. Just how long ago, exactly, he did not say.
Mr. Trudeau had not yet reached this epiphany in 2006, when he described nationalism as “an old idea from the 19th century” at the very moment the House of Commons was preparing to vote on a motion stating that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”
“Unfortunately, some people these days are wrapped up in this idea of nation for Quebec, which stands against everything my father ever believed,” Mr. Trudeau told CTV’s Canada AM. “We need to start looking forward.”
During the 2006 Liberal Party of Canada leadership race, Mr. Trudeau supported Gerard Kennedy, who had opposed the Québécois nation motion and called it “politically inspired, treating this country like a political trinket.”
When he became Liberal leader in 2013, Mr. Trudeau accused then-Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair, both supporters of Quebec’s nationhood status, of “exploiting differences” and pitting “Quebec against the rest of Canada” to “further their own interests.”
On his first Canada Day as Prime Minister, in 2016, Mr. Trudeau upset Quebec nationalists with a speech in which he said Confederation marked the end of Upper Canada and Lower Canada and the creation of “one nation, one country, one Canada.”
In 2017, when then-Quebec Liberal premier Philippe Couillard relaunched an effort to have Quebec’s specificity recognized in the Constitution, Mr. Trudeau responded with a dismissive no: “You know my views on the Constitution, we are not reopening the Constitution.”
So, if it is true that Mr. Trudeau now recognizes that the Québécois form a nation, then it is a relatively recent development and runs counter to almost everything he has ever previously said.
While he has not explicitly endorsed Quebec Premier François Legault’s tabling of legislation in the National Assembly that would amend the Canadian Constitution to state that the Québécois form a nation and that French is the province’s official and common language, Mr. Trudeau did call the move “perfectly legitimate” based on legal analysis provided by federal government lawyers.
This came as something of a revelation to many constitutional scholars and students of history. They remember how, when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney reached a constitutional deal with the provinces to recognize Quebec as a “distinct society” in 1987, opponents of the Meech Lake accord “conjured up ominous and apocalyptic predictions of how such a provision would be interpreted by the courts,” as Mr. Mulroney later recalled.
Now, Canadians are being led to believe by Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Legault, and even by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, that Quebec never really needed the rest of Canada’s approval to declare itself a distinct society or nation – or anything else, for that matter – within the Canadian Constitution.
Suddenly, it seems, they have just discovered that Article 45 of the 1982 Canadian Constitution allows the legislature of any province to “exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province.” Since provincial constitutions are part of the Canadian Constitution, Quebec’s nationhood would be constitutionally recognized with the simple passage of Bill 96 by the National Assembly.
According to Mr. Kenney, Alberta “might use the precedent being created in Quebec” to unilaterally amend the Constitution “in an area under our jurisdiction.” You can see how this could get messy very quickly.
In a Saturday interview in Le Devoir, Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said the constitutional amendment included in Bill 96 “lays down markers for the respect of Quebec’s autonomy, and the collective rights associated with the Quebec nation.” He added that it was “possible the Quebec government, the Quebec nation could use those measures to affirm its specificity within the Canadian environment.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau said he did “not share this interpretation” of Bill 96. But he refused to elaborate. His silence may serve his short-term political purposes, as he seeks to avoid starting a constitutional fight with Quebec only months before a federal election. But the ambiguity surrounding Bill 96 serves no one’s interest.
It would be best for everyone if Mr. Trudeau took steps to clear it up before Quebec passes the bill, and before Mr. Kenney moves to imitate Mr. Legault with an Alberta First constitutional amendment of his own. Mr. Trudeau could ask the Supreme Court to provide clarity on the matter in a reference case.
That is not likely to happen, however. Mr. Trudeau, once an outspoken defender of his father’s federalist vision, now prefers to fudge his views on Quebec and the Constitution. It may come back to haunt him, and the country.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.