A majority of Canadian provinces are now seeking more autonomy from Ottawa. There is loud grumbling in the big Conservative family, now comfortably in power in many provinces from coast to coast. Some do not hesitate to use the language of “threat to national unity” to decry the policies, particularly the environmental policies, imposed on the provinces by Justin Trudeau’s federal government.
In Alberta, Conservative Premier Jason Kenney has even talked about achieving independence for his province if Ottawa moves forward with implementation of Bill C-69, which changes the way Canada assesses the impact of major national energy and transportation projects. Here, for the first time, a province in the rest of Canada is following the Quebec strategy of threatening to leave the federation to win greater autonomy.
In an interview with La Presse in July, Kenney argued: “We must follow the way used by Quebec. Quebec has been very effective in dominating the federation’s national policy over the past 40 years by vigorously asserting its interests. That’s what we’re going to do, too. I copy Quebec. I know its history.” (Translations from French-language sources in this article are ours.)
For its part, the government of Quebec, led by Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), is increasing its requests for more power from the federal government. Since its election in October 2018, the CAQ has had these requests rejected by Ottawa, and the federal attitude seems to be stoking nationalist sentiments in the Quebec media and electorate.
On immigration issues, for example, Legault is trying to renegotiate agreements with Ottawa to allow Quebec to select more of its newcomers. No, Ottawa replied. Trudeau has also categorically refused to accept the proposal for a single tax return, to be administered by Quebec. On another front, Trudeau has expressed his opposition to Bill 21, which regulates the wearing of religious symbols by public servants in positions of authority. Quebec has chosen to use the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to circumvent a possible court decision and enforce the new law.
An autonomist tradition in Quebec
The push for autonomy and the movement toward sovereignty (or independence) are not the same. Several parties and politicians in Quebec’s history have fought hard for more autonomy without ever claiming that Quebec must be independent. Others decided to serve the sovereignist cause directly by pointing out the past failures of autonomism: that is, the difficulties of making gains in the face of a strong central power. Such failures tend to strengthen the sovereignist argument.
Politicians in Quebec have made autonomist claims ever since the formative years of Confederation. About the 19th-century patriot and reformer Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Louis Balthazar writes: “Between the shattered dream of independence and despair in the face of assimilation, a third path seems possible to him: that of collaboration with anglophones in a broader universe than that of Lower Canada, while striving to preserve a francophone identity and certain rights related to that identity.” LaFontaine was an autonomist in his time, before the term came into common use.
By the late 1930s, it was Maurice Duplessis who was considered the great defender of Quebec against Ottawa’s centralizing aims. According to the economist François-Albert Angers, Duplessis won all his elections, from 1944 until his death in 1959, thanks to the theme of provincial autonomy. Although he was sincere, the autonomist defence was undoubtedly also profitable for Duplessis, both politically and electorally.
It was also as a political strategy that former premier Daniel Johnson, from 1966 onwards, used his famous slogan “Égalité ou indépendance” (Equality or independence). Éric Bélanger of McGill University writes, “The case of Daniel Johnson Sr. is one of the most interesting to study because his threat of independence seems above all to have been nothing more than a negotiation strategy, and not a really possible alternative (at least for the time) in the eyes of the Premier…He has long understood that the idea of separation frightens anglophones and he does not fail to brandish it as a weapon.”
The defeat of the sovereignist option in the 1980 referendum and the subsequent failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional negotiations led former Liberal premier Robert Bourassa, in his turn, to use the sovereignist threat as a strategy to gain more power, more autonomy from Ottawa. Bélanger comments, “In 1991, before the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, Léon Dion suggested that the Liberal government use the strategy of a knife at the throat by attaching the threat of a referendum on independence to Quebec’s demands (including recognition of Quebec as a distinct society) in the event of a refusal by the rest of Canada…A little like Johnson, Bourassa’s adoption of a common constitutional position allowed him to temporarily calm the nationalist wing of his party.”
However, the momentum of the sovereignist cause was boosted by the failures of the negotiations for autonomy, and the Parti Québécois — elected in 1994 under Jacques Parizeau — seized it. A second referendum defeat in 1995, with a much tighter margin this time, sealed Quebec’s constitutional fate to this day.
The challenge of autonomy today
François Legault’s arrival in power in October 2018 marks the return of the autonomist strategy in Quebec after almost 15 years of rule by the Liberal Party, which was more oriented toward cooperation and good understanding with Ottawa. Addressing both the “disappointed nationalists” of the Liberal Party and the “pragmatic” followers of the Parti Québécois, the CAQ’s president, Stéphane Le Bouyonnec, declared in 2015: “We are now taking a resolutely autonomist, nationalist, non-sovereignist position.”
By seeking more autonomy, like other provinces, Quebec doesn’t seem isolated anymore. To be sure, the demand for autonomy might take different forms depending on regional interests. For example, through the Supreme Court, Ontario is contesting Ottawa’s power to impose the carbon tax. Saskatchewan and Alberta also have their grievances on equalization and energy. British Columbia, on the other hand, is in court to stop Ottawa’s project to run a pipeline through it. And now it is not a Quebec leader but an Alberta premier who is trying the “knife at the throat” strategy.
The real challenge for the CAQ is to pursue an autonomist nationalism in a new political context, where the division over independence that structured Quebec politics for the last 50 years has become less sharp. But if Quebec wishes to remain consistent in its autonomist position, it must make political gains against Ottawa.
Other provinces eager for more power, such as Alberta, might have a lot to learn from Quebec’s experience. How will they react if they face a wall in Ottawa? Will we see the emergence of a coordinated autonomist front among provinces? That would be a real game changer in this era of Canadian executive federalism. Certainly, the issue has the potential to be a determining factor in Canada’s upcoming elections, especially if one federal party is more inclined than another to respond to requests for provincial autonomy.
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