Supreme Hour of Resolution <br>Finally at Hand for Quebec <br>As Couillard Savors Mandate
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The supreme hour for a resolution of the Quebec issue could be at hand. All Canadian posterity could be liberated from endlessly debating that hackneyed question as all living Canadians have for most of our lives. It has been such a terribly intractable problem because Canada was founded as a bi-cultural confederation, but has evolved into an agitating group of provinces seeking a redistribution of powers, while Quebec has been severely divided between federalists, independentists, and quasi-autonomists seeking greater jurisdiction and revenue, but not necessarily national sovereignty.
The traditional Canadian methods of working out jurisdictional problems — endless good faith negotiation, lubricated by massaging around fiscal benefits, which this rich country is generally able to do — has had its successes. But not all the parties to this controversy have always been bargaining in good faith, and on several occasions, the main forces of federalism and of Quebec nationalism arrived at conciliatory positions just as the other side abandoned them.
The French Canadians only steered clear of the American Revolution because Sir Guy Carleton passed the Quebec Act in 1774 and guaranteed the language, law and religion of the French — without that, all Canada would have succumbed to the American revolutionaries. The Gilbert and Sullivan rebellions of 1837 were caused by the refusal of the British government to make their provincial governors responsible to the will of the elected legislators.
The rebellions were not more widely supported because Canada was in the very delicate position of seeking independence from precisely the power it relied upon to avoid being snaffled up and absorbed by the United States, as Texas and California were. So Canadians had to appeal to the British to grant them the same rights British citizens had in the home islands without so exasperating London that it gave Canada to the U.S. in exchange for other consideration.
The British response to the 1837 rebellions of Mackenzie and Papineau was to send the Ruritanian mountebank, Lord Durham, to Canada for a few months until they fired him for exceeding his authority, and Durham proposed granting the powers sought by the legislatures, but uniting what are now Ontario and Quebec to deprive the French Canadians of their culture and assimilate them to the English. The local leaders, Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, accepted the increased powers but continued to respect the rights and permanence of the two main cultural groups.
The world’s only bi-cultural, trans-continental, parliamentary confederation was set up, largely by John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown, with British encouragement, to give a country north of the United States a chance to succeed. As the U.S. emerged from its terrible civil war, having abolished slavery, it had the most powerful army in the world, and was still making noises of manifest continental appetite as it looked northward.
By the narrowest of margins, Macdonald was able to build a railway to the Pacific, which was a much greater engineering challenge than the U.S. railways, which did not have the Canadian shield to contend with. That railway was quickly used to help suppress a rising of French-speaking native people.
The unnecessary hanging of Louis Riel, who was financially corrupt and often delusional but had not really deserved such a fate, strained French-English relations. But Riel was representing himself as an almost supernatural religious leader and was not an adequately credible figure to rend the country.
There had always been considerable doubt in French Canada about Canada as a whole, but the French Canadians were not able to launch their own country in the 19th century and some association with English Canadians that respected their rights, assured they would not be swamped by the Anglo-Saxons, and was protected by the British Empire, was the best that was on offer.
Canada was fortunate that three agile statesmen, Macdonald, Laurier and Mackenzie King, were head of the government of the United Province or Dominion of Canada, or leader of the opposition, from 1856 to 1948, 92 consecutive years (66 in government), and they preserved the initial character of the country as requiring an English and a French majority for important decisions.
These men dealt with every U.S. president from Andrew Johnson to Harry Truman (17 administrations), and every British prime minister from the Lord Palmerston to Clement Attlee (17 leaders of 28 governments). Laurier and King saved the country terrible strains in the conscription crises of the world wars (there was no need for conscription, Canada was not under threat and its war record was magnificent, the Americans provided all the manpower required, and the French did not have, and had no reason to have, the same filial affection for France that English Canadians often felt for the U.K.).
The French-Canadian leadership had long called for genuine cultural equality, but by the time the English-Canadian political establishment came around to this view in the Pearson years, with the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission and Trudeau’s Official Languages Act, the French-Canadian elites were contemplating the ancient dream of an independent French Quebec republic.
It was a comprehensible option. But Pierre Trudeau’s option: “Masters in our own house and our house is Canada,” was a better, not to mention more practical and affordable, idea. While this debate has flared and waned these 50 years, Canada has become a much more successful country, able to do more than respectfully tug at the trouser-leg of the British and Americans; is clearly now a better governed country than the United States, and has managed its fiscal and political affairs more capably than almost any other major country.
French-Canadian nationalists, long accustomed to denigrating Canada as a mediocre amalgam of Anglo-American leftovers, now face the fact that it is one of the 10 or so most important countries in the world, and the French Canadians effectively governed or co-governed this country from 1921 to 2006, except for the Bennett and Diefenbaker years (1930-1935, 1957-1963). Stephen Harper is the first leader since Canada was under British military government in the 1830s to govern effectively with no appreciable support from Quebec.
This is a stand-off, as Canada will not make further ex gratia concessions to a Quebec that mistreats cultural and religious minorities and receives $2,000 per year per capita from the English provinces. Further, Quebec does not possess the ability to blackmail the country any more. The separatists can’t get to 50% on an independence referendum without a trick question and cannot seriously aspire to drag millions of Quebec federalists out of Canada into a severely divided independent Quebec.
The Parti Québécois is the only province-wide independentist party and it has run 13 general election campaigns, from 1970 to last week, and its percentage of the vote is 25.5, as opposed to 24 in 1970. It was reduced to a smear-flailing campaign and a ridiculous law entrusting the acceptance of wearing religious symbols to apparel police. The PQ has only defeated the Quebec Liberals in the popular vote by more than 1% twice, and the last time was in 1981, when it pledged not to hold a referendum. Mercifully debunked is the Thomas Mulcair theory that the way to save Canada was to grovel to the separatists.
About 20% of Quebecers are fearless separatists, 40% are unconditional federalists, and 40% want federalism fine-tuned. Robert Bourassa could have got constitutional renovation at Victoria in 1971, and Meech Lake would have passed if he hadn’t attacked bilingualism in Quebec during the ratification process. Premier-designate Philippe Couillard is a much braver federalist than Jean Charest or Robert Bourassa, who used to waffle on about “an entirely French, uniquely sovereign Quebec in a Canadian common market.”
We should restore the principle of a national Anglo-French association, accept a distinct constitutional status for Quebec (of course it isn’t a province like the others, and it never was); allow for compensated opting out from programs in provincial areas and shared jurisdiction in immigration, the partition of provinces that vote to secede where regions of secessionist provinces vote to remain in Canada, and a partial federalization of the Senate and Supreme Court. Those institutions could scarcely be more ludicrous than they have become with the expenses controversies and the preposterous Nadon decision. This could be negotiated in stages, between Ottawa and Quebec and then, where appropriate, other provinces.
Quebec is ready to deal; Couillard has the courage and the mandate. Stephen Harper may lack the imagination to seize the moment, but other accomplished veterans of the long constitutional struggle, including Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Joe Clark, Roy Romanow and Jean Charest, are available to him. The time has come.
Cbletters@gmail.com. From the National Post.