François Cardinal is editorial page editor at La Presse
In responding in a curt and scornful manner recently to the Policy on Quebec Affirmation, Justin Trudeau, in an absurd way, proved its necessity.
Without even slackening his pace, the Prime Minister brushed aside a document that has the merit of reminding us, on the eve of the Federation's 150th anniversary, of the existence of a society that is distinct at its very heart. And at the precise moment when that society expresses its desire to forge closer ties with the rest of the country!
Celebrations are all well and good, but historical anniversaries are also an opportunity to pause, to remind ourselves where we come from, to ask ourselves where we're going, to set ourselves future goals – precisely what the policy of the Philippe Couillard government is seeking to do.
If Mr. Trudeau had taken the trouble to just run his eye over the document, he would have clearly seen that it contains nothing confrontational. It requests neither a constitutional roundtable nor immediate talks. It simply makes a number of historical and cultural points. It recalls that Quebec is a nation. It updates its long-standing political demands and constitutional claims. And it emphasizes its willingness to be more pro-active in the Federation.
The great merit of the document, "Quebecers, Our Way of Being Canadians," is that it fills a void.
A void among federalists, even the most nationalistic, who seemed reconciled to never proposing anything again for fear of being told no. A void in the development of a contemporary vision of Quebec's place in Canada as a whole, reflection that seems to have come to a sudden halt 25 years ago.
Let's not turn a blind eye: It's to the advantage of the Couillard government to flex nationalist muscles as the elections approach. But a certain boldness was nonetheless required in opening a door that could easily have been slammed shut. It also took a good dose of introspection to update the minimum demands that Quebeckers agree on, so much has the context changed since the Meech Lake era.
Aboriginal peoples, asserting themselves more than ever, today are taking their place, and rightly so, in such a fashion that the notion of the two founding peoples has necessarily evolved.
Civil society expresses its views more forcefully, demanding to be heard and consulted, which leads us to believe that the time when the premiers could decide on the fate of the country behind closed doors is over and done with.
And the young haven't lived through the referendums, the past negotiations and their failures, something that allows them to address their dual belonging and their dual loyalty to Quebec and to Canada in a different way.
There is finally this taboo that weighs on the federation: the absence of Quebec's signature on the 1982 constitution, a major source of embarrassment that we don't even try to fix any more.
The ultimate goal of the policy of national affirmation is of course to get there, one day, under specific conditions. And this, at the conclusion of a "rigorous, progressive and protracted process," in the words of constitutionalist Benoît Pelletier.
But it's only a distant objective, as it happens, one that certainly exceeds a government mandate or two, in Quebec City and in Ottawa. So we're only at the preamble of the preamble, but every dialogue must necessarily begin with a first gesture.
"As distinct from past experience," notes Jean-Marc Fournier, Quebec minister responsible for Canadian Relations, "we want to discuss, share, and better understand ourselves before contemplating talks of a constitutional nature."
The fruit isn't ripe today, that much is clear. The end of the "internal exile of Quebeckers" is not imminent.
But that's no reason for not being even capable of envisaging the start of a dialogue that might one day lead us to address this absence fraught with meaning.
As the American political thinker Arend Lijphart has stated, "the negation of a nation within a greater ensemble can only foster division and, ultimately, undermine national cohesion."
After all, the mutual recognition of the nations that make up the Federation lies at the very basis of the project whose 150 years we happen to be celebrating.