One conclusion many Canadians may come to as they look back at 2022 is that it would be in the country’s best interest to require provincial premiers to complete a civics course before taking office.
Such a conclusion would be based on the steady assaults on our constitutional democracy continued this year by the premiers of Quebec, Ontario and Alberta.
From the chronic overuse of the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause by the premiers of Quebec and Ontario, to the startling misrepresentation of how the Canadian federation works uttered by the premier of Alberta – and a few more slaps to the face in-between – it’s fair to wonder whether these elected leaders have the faintest grasp of what it means to govern in a democracy.
Most of Canada’s premiers understand that the power entrusted to them by voters should be used in such a way that it reinforces the values that have made this country a stable and safe democracy.
But François Legault, Doug Ford and Danielle Smith – who together represent close to three-quarters of Canada’s population – instead see it as a tool to settle personal and political grievances, to weaken the federation to their benefit and to repress minorities.
By doing so, they are undermining our country. They may not believe they’re doing this, but they are.
Mr. Legault’s contribution begins with his use of the notwithstanding clause to uphold Bill 21, a 2019 law that prohibits many public employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing symbols of their religion on the job. It’s a discriminatory and unnecessary law that forces vulnerable minorities – mostly Muslim women who want to wear a hijab – to choose between their employment and their faith.
The Quebec Premier resorted to the notwithstanding clause again in 2022, this time to inoculate Bill 96 against Charter challenges. That law, adopted in June, allows language inspectors to search business offices without a warrant, and compromises the right of English-speaking people to communicate in their mother tongue in personal settings and in business contracts.
In Ontario, Mr. Ford capriciously cut the size of the Toronto municipal council in half during the city’s 2018 election campaign, a petty act of retribution against a council he and his late brother, Rob Ford, were constantly at odds with.
Mr. Ford included the notwithstanding clause in the act that shrunk the council, but he ended up not needing it when the Supreme Court reaffirmed the province’s right to treat municipalities as personal playthings of the Premier.
Thus emboldened, this year Mr. Ford passed a law that allows the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa to adopt bylaws with just one-third of the council vote when it suits his government’s agenda. That is as anti-democratic as a premier can be without actually outlawing democracy.
Mr. Ford also threatened to use the notwithstanding clause this fall to deprive school support workers of the right to strike. He only backed down after the province’s unions threatened him with a general strike.
And then there is Alberta, where Ms. Smith’s government has passed the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, an unconstitutional bit of magical thinking in which the province grants itself the power to ignore federal law whenever the fancy strikes.
“The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions,” Ms. Smith famously said during the passage of the bill.
We have no idea what she is talking about. Nor do any constitutional experts. High-school civics students are no doubt also scratching their heads.
But it’s easy to understand Ms. Smith’s goal: to undermine the system of shared powers in Canada’s federation, and to paint Ottawa’s constitutional place in that system as some kind of foreign insurgence.
None of this is true to what Canada is meant to be. This is not a country that represses religious freedoms and workers’ rights, where the state interferes in people’s personal lives, or where a minority can outvote the majority when it suits a government’s purposes.
But we are being pulled in that direction by premiers who have chosen to ignore that they are part of something bigger than their immediate political agendas. Mr. Legault, Mr. Ford and Ms. Smith are diminishing Canada.