It’s been two weeks since Quebec Premier François Legault’s government introduced legislation that would further assert its unique status within the Canadian federation.
While Mr. Legault has attempted to downplay the significance of Bill 96 in terms of what it means to the country, that is a view many are having a hard time accepting. When you are talking about a province attempting to unilaterally change the Constitution it is anything but a small thing.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has tried to tamp down any controversy by insisting Quebec has the legal right to protect its cultural identity, including the French language. However, his opinion is completely coloured by the fact that he is almost sure to call an election later this year. Consequently, he does not want to anger the French majority in the province.
Unilaterally changing the Constitution? No problem.
As with all things involving Quebec, this development has seized the attention of many in the West. It didn’t take long, for instance, for Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner to suggest that if Quebec could change the Constitution, then so should Alberta be able to amend Section 36 that covers equalization payments.
“I mean, if we’re going to play this game let’s do it up right,” she remarked.
Former Alberta finance minister Ted Morton opined that any federal Conservative party that went along with Mr. Legault’s gambit was not going to be popular in the West.
But that was before Alberta Premier Jason Kenney threw everyone for a loop by praising Mr. Legault, and almost openly admiring his genius for finding a backdoor route to Constitutional change. “I look to Quebec with a degree of admiration,” Mr. Kenney said in an interview with The Calgary Herald.
Whatever Bill 96′s fate, it, and Mr. Trudeau’s response, has been a political gift to Mr. Kenney, whose popularity inside his province has tumbled to an abysmal low. The main culprit for those dismal approval numbers has been his government’s botched response to the pandemic. But they were trending downward before that. He is fighting an open rebellion by the small-c conservative wing of his party, which includes the freedom fighters and those who believe Alberta would be better off on its own.
Mr. Kenney does not believe this, but does maintain that Alberta has a culture and identity that is unique. He insists the province has not received a fair shake in Confederation, especially given its outsized economic contribution to the country. He set up a Fair Deal Panel to explore ways Alberta might better assert its independence in a manner that gives it greater control over its destiny. This includes ideas such as having its own pension plan and police force.
Now the Premier has Bill 96 to wave around and possibly a new slogan: What’s good for Quebec should be good for Alberta.
Of course, it’s one thing for Quebec to use the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution to cement its status as a “nation” inside Canada, and to insist that its common language be French. Those aren’t altogether radical notions, even if the mechanism the Quebec government is trying to use to achieve these goals seems like overreach.
Mr. Kenney attempting to use the same means to, say, get a better equalization deal for his province is quite a different matter. Equalization payments have little in common with the move to protect the French identity in a predominantly English-speaking country.
Not that it is likely to deter the Alberta Premier from referencing Bill 96 repeatedly in speeches in the next few months.
As he told the Herald: “We’re plotting out a longer-term strategy to build a stronger, more resilient and more autonomous Alberta within the Constitution.” The emphasis is mine.
Has Mr. Legault opened up a constitutional Pandora’s box? Is the country now threatened with an onslaught of “notwithstanding clause” actions by premiers wanting to please supporters in the same way Mr. Legault is pandering to his?
The likely answer is no. The prudent answer is maybe it’s too early to say. Mr. Legault’s gambit will be challenged. It will likely end up in the hands of the country’s top court.
Meantime, it will be used as a stick by others, including Mr. Kenney. And the Prime Minister will be answering questions about this issue for months to come. He will likely be forced to take a stronger stance on the matter than he has to this point.
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