The election of Quebec’s new premier, Jean Charest, signals the beginning of a new era in federal-provincial relations. For the first time in over 30 years, the issue of sovereignty was not at the centre of the political stage in a Quebec election. While the Parti Québécois reiter- ated its commitment and its intent to achieve sovereignty, it essentially ran a campaign promising to continue providing ”œgood government.” Mario Dumont’s Action démocratique du Québec, the ADQ, created in the aftermath of the Allaire Report and the Charlottetown Accord, avoided the constitu- tional question entirely. The Liberals, led by a convinced fed- eralist, made health care the central issue of the campaign.
As chief of staff to two Quebec premiers, I was involved in federal-provincial relations and files as well as a number of interprovincial dossiers. I believe that the change of gov- ernment in Quebec will usher in a new approach to how our federation works. The choice of Jean Charest represents a shift in the dynamics of how Quebec will deal with the rest of Canada (ROC).
What does this mean? Is it a Quebec government duly elected to push for a pro-federalist agenda and downplaying the so-called ”œsuperior interests” of Quebec, the mantra of Jean Charest’s predecessor, Robert Bourassa? Or is it the emer- gence of a pragmatic intermingling of provincial alliances to pressure concessions from the federal government? Clearly, there is little expectation for any short-term renewal of con- stitutional talks. Rather, there is a growing realization that this country can best function when governments co-operate. The era of federal-provincial confrontation has run its course. The proverbial ”œknife at the throat” endorsed by successive Quebec governments may have produced some results, but overall, left problems unsolved and polarized politics in this country.
One should not expect a Quebec premier to simply join the ranks of the other premiers and toe the line. Charest is very much aware of the mantle of responsibility a Quebec pre- mier carries. As head of the only gov- ernment that has jurisdiction over a majority francophone population, he must exercise a leadership unlike his provincial counterparts. He can choose to confront or to work with his col- leagues to bring about change in how the Canadian federation works but he can never waver in his defence of Quebec interests.
Over the years, our politics may have been conditioned and influ- enced by the constitutional agenda. However, Quebec sees federal-provincial relations as more than the constitution- al issue. It acknowledges the whole dynamic as part of what Charest has already termed ”œdomestic diplomacy.” Solutions to issues affecting one’s daily preoccupations are expected.
The emerging debate on the fiscal imbalance championed by some provinces, including Quebec, will soon be seen in the same prism as the Health Accord. In short, results to be attained, not just battlelines to be drawn.
Federal-provincial relations, there- fore, are more than the agenda of a spe- cific region or people. They are the total sum of concerns that must be dealt with in the normal governance of a fed- eral state. The fact that Canada is a fed- eration with its member states having exclusive ”œsovereignties” and sharing some ”œsovereignties” makes it impera- tive to consider federal-provincial rela- tions as fundamental for the well-being and the progress of the country.
In order to better assess the impor- tance of federal-provincial relations, we must define the role of the part- ners. Clearly, the federal government plays a pivotal role by virtue of its responsibility to act in the national interest. The federal government with its constitutional perogatives, unlimit- ed power of taxation, its spending power, and the residual clause must act in ways that benefit all Canadians. In so doing, it must work with the provinces in ways that respect their jurisdictions and find solutions that benefit all citizens. The provinces pro- tect and act in the interests of their populations and, hopefully, can see beyond their specific concerns to help make the federation work, in the national interest as well as their own.
In Canadian history, we have observed periods where the thrust for a more centralized form of government carried the day. There were other peri- ods, however, where the push for a more decentralized federation became more prominent. We often tend to portray the role of Quebec as the prime and sole mover in favour of greater provincial autonomy. However, there were moments where the Ontario- Quebec axis worked in tandem. In recent decades, Alberta and Quebec have developed synergies in their approach to federal-provincial rela- tions and have acted accordingly.
We may be on the threshold of something unprecedented. For the first time in Quebec history, the for- mer leader of a national party has shift- ed to the provincial scene and attained power. The arrival of Mr. Charest, com- bined with changes emerging elsewhere in the country, create a new reality at a time when the provinces feel strapped for cash, when constitutional talks no longer dominate the picture, and when issues are forcefully being advanced by different regions of the country. The change in Quebec is most significant, as it may result in a new role in federal- provincial relations. Quebec could become a leader for reform beyond its own traditional demands.
The 1995 referendum nearly pro- duced the most feared result for federal- ists " the secession of Quebec. The narrow margin in favour of the ”œno” forces represented more than just a close call. It expressed the rejection of status quo federalism. The failed efforts of the past, including refusal by Quebec of the Victoria Charter, patriation without Quebec’s signature in 1982 and the fail- ure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords were factors lead- ing so many Quebecers to tempt fate.
The Canadian economy in 1995 was coming off a second recession in a decade, with galloping fiscal deficits at both levels of government and high unemployment. The word ”œbankrupt” was often repeated by opponents of Canadian unity. The PQ under Jacques Parizeau, a sovereignist hardliner, was elected on a platform calling for a refer- endum on sovereignty. The climate was ripe for an upheaval in attitude and direction. The flamboyant entry of Bloc Québécois leader, Lucien Bouchard, transformed the referendum choice as more a vote against status quo federal- ism. The Yes coalition was able to capi- talize on this confusion to produce a near victory. The outcome actu- ally shook the foundations of the federation.
Since the referendum, the climate in Canada has changed dramatically. The economic situation has improved steadily to where Canada is recognized as the most dynamic economy in the G8. Unemployment is down, fiscal deficits at the federal level have disappeared and now we have sur- pluses. Provincial deficits are under con- trol. Productivity is up and Canada is a leader in the new high tech economy.
The Quebec-Canada confronta- tion has also transformed itself. Even though the PQ was in power through- out the post-1995 period, it worked within the federation. Joint economic excursions, federal-provincial agree- ments on such controversial issues as health care, manpower programs, housing infrastructure construction and a general lowering of the con- frontational tone between Quebec and the federal government highlight- ed this period. A bilateral constitu- tional amendment was even negotiated between the Canadian and Quebec governments on the organiza- tion of local school boards (from a confessional setup to linguistic divi- sion). Two controversial events did punctuate this period, however. These were the social union agreement (Quebec dissented) and the Clarity Bill, which Quebec challenged in the Supreme Court. These discords did not really have strong resonance with the population. The Quebec electorate had seemingly moved on.
With the backdrop of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada has forged ahead within the global economy. While the Quebec government under Bernard Landry may have expressed some reservations, no political party in Quebec opposes greater liberalization of the economy. Today, all Quebec leaders speak with confidence about our ability to compete and find our way in the changing commercial cli- mate. In fact, Premier Charest has repeatedly spoken since his election of the ”œconfidence” of Quebec.
The recent campaign, fought on issues other than the so-called nation- al question, was bound to produce an agenda of change. The campaign of 2003 will therefore be remembered as a watershed election. The mandate obtained by Jean Charest and his Liberals is a clear and strong one to change the tone, the approach and the attitude.
It is now evident that the political class of Quebec is undergoing a certain catharsis. Jean Charest, the ardent federalist, the for- mer Tory national leader, is reborn as a Quebec politician who has done his homework and now understands the subtleties of Quebec politics. Hopes are high but the context is different. From a much maligned opposition leader, he now emerges as the leader of a federal- ist party with no real expectation of a constitutional deal for the first time in over 30 years. This represents, in itself, a new context.
Is separatism dead? Does the election of Jean Charest as premier and the emergence of the new leadership at the federal level augur well for co- operative and productive federalism? It would be perilous to answer yes to both questions. If anything, announc- ing the death of separatism has usual- ly resulted in a resurgence of nationalist fervor in Quebec. In addi- tion, good optics between politcal leaders does not in itself produce tan- gible gains. To better assess the future of federal-provincial relations, it would be useful to learn from the past and to avoid repeating errors in the future.
However refreshing and comfort- ing the election of Jean Charest may be, the sovereignty project is still alive and in the hands of the major opposi- tion party in the National Assembly. Within a short period, a leadership contest will emerge within the PQ, and this new leader will benefit from a con- test of ideas that could have resonance within the electorate. The honeymoon with the Charest Liberals may not be long and the opposition will be fierce when it comes to gauging improvements in health care, the tax burden, job creation and federal-provincial fis- cal matters. When the alternative party is a sovereignist party, it is fool- hardy to conclude that its raison d’é‚tre will disappear.
Language and constitutional poli- tics define how Quebecers perceive the level of acceptance of their difference in Canada. While neither issue is upper-most in the minds of Quebecers today, Premier Charest will be held to a higher standard than the PQ. This is why he must never appear to concede in these areas and must be seen to seize the opportunity to improve on them. The ROC can never expect a Quebec premier to sing the praises of Canada without reservation when Quebec still has not signed the 1982 Constitution and is clamoring for a redress of what the new finance minister, Yves Séguin described as a $2 billion fiscal shortfall for Quebec.
This being said, Charest can be expected to be proactive and assure a leadership role in federal-provincial mat- ters. He will arrive at the table with a reservoir of goodwill, but we must never forget that he faces a stronger opposition at home than anyone else in the coun- try. Failure for him can have an impact on everyone else at the federal-provin- cial table, including the prime minister and the government of Canada.
While the efforts of previous lead- ers including Brian Mulroney, Robert Bourassa and David Peterson on con- stitutional issues produced some opti- mism, the death of the Meech Lake Accord and later the rejection of the Charlottetown Accord left lingering grievances. If one measures the progress of the federation by constitu- tionalized gains, one would have to conclude that we have had more fail- ure than success. Yet, administratively, Quebec benefitted in 1990 and 1996 from two essential administrative deals important to its identity. These include manpower and immigration adminis- trative arrangements that are now considered an integral part of the political landscape. Not spectacular progress, but real, nonetheless!
Progress was also made during the Chrétien years, including Parliament’s recognition of the distinct character of Quebec society, some limits on federal government spending in areas of provincial juris- diction, and specific accords in a host of areas alluded to earlier. Based on the results of the last 20 years, and noting the current approach of the Quebec Liberals, it would appear that there is greater promise in a noncon- stitutional approach.
In the past, Quebec premiers have allied themselves with other premiers. At times, the results were disappoint- ing and led to greater disunity. The Quebec alliance with seven other provinces in 1981-82 ended in failure, and Quebec lost its traditional veto. In both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the federal government was Quebec’s best ally.
The message here is that there are no good or bad allies, just a strong dose of realpolitik. There will be times where alliances will shift, and this real- ity must be factored in to any federal- provincial relations strategy.
Too often, Quebec governments have pushed the constitutional agenda with little regard for the impact it can have on public opinion in the rest of the country. This is understandable to the extent that the Quebec premier is accountable to his electorate. It can create obstacles if Quebec fails to explain its objectives to the electorate beyond its borders. Effective Quebec diplomacy can only help allies in advancing its cause. The invoking of the notwithstanding clause in Bill 178 in 1988, strictly lim- iting the use of languages other than French on signs, had a significant effect on unravelling the consensus on the Meech Lake Accord. This should not be forgotten. Having been a leader of a national party should help the new Quebec premier in comprehend- ing ROC opinions and attitudes.
If there is one tangible visual from the Meech period, it was the feather held by Elijah Harper in the Manitoba legislature, opposing ratification. Federal-provincial relations must always take into account the impact on native communities. Too long we have dealt with their issues in a reac- tive mode. As a result, a lack of empowerment has permeated many of these communities. Their concerns must be addressed in the normal course of activity.
If there is one legacy attributed to the Charlottetown Acord, it is the expectation that major change affecting the constitution must be ratified direct- ly by the population. This obviously raises the bar and makes the possibility of a constitutional initiative on a specif- ic agenda such as Quebec’s signature on the 1982 Constitution more difficult.
This should not prevent progress on responding to Quebec-based initia- tives in a nonconstitutional context. Such an approach can only remove the suspicions that politicians are operat- ing behind close doors and ignoring the will of the electorate.
More transparency and more involvement by the people can produce trust, a basis for eventual con- stitutional talks. In the meantime, the perception as well as the reality must be that political leaders are dealing with the practical problems affecting the lives of citizens.
In recent months, we have observed that federal-provincial rela- tions are becoming more than just a Quebec-centric domain. The conflicts between Alberta and Ottawa, Newfoundland’s questioning of the terms of Confederation and the growing sense of a fiscal imbalance reflect a cli- mate where federal-provincial relations will once again dominate the political agenda in Canada. No one province will be alone in clamoring for change.
Like it or not, the central govern- ment in a federation has a responsibil- ity to ensure an equitable distribution of resources and prosperity. It is an undeniable fact that many of the issues emerging with the demographic crunch, including healthcare and eco- nomic security, are the primary responsibility of the provinces. In Canada, provincial politicians refer to the lack of funds and services to deal with these issues as the product of a fiscal imbalance.
There are some who legitimately ask whether a Charest-led government will shift away from the so-called tradi- tional demands of Quebec. Will the Quebec leader be expected to assess all change or propositions from the vague notion of the ”œsuperior interests of Quebec”? While the constitution may not be a priority for the new Liberal government, it is clear that no one should expect Mr. Charest to sign the 1982 Constitution. Traditional demands such as the formal recognition of Quebec’s differences, the acquiring of a veto on changes to national institutions and limits on federal spending in provincial areas of jurisdiction remain on the table and must be dealt with. Moreover, we can expect, and history sub- stantiates this, that a Liberal-led Quebec government will not compromise or risk any measure that will affect negatively the identity of Quebec.
As a new federalist government takes hold in Quebec and emerging issues are championed in all regions of the country, it is fair to ask : where will federal-provincial relations go from here? Will there be a renewed appetite for constitutional talks? Will Quebec direct the national agenda as it so often has done in the past? Following are some perspectives of what is to come.
Elections will be held in a number of provinces within the next 12 months, a new Canadian prime minis- ter will be in place and Jean Charest will make his entry on the national stage for the first time as Quebec pre- mier. This new cast of characters will surely change the dynamic as we have known it. There seem to be no consti- tutional talks on the horizon. Quebec is not alone at the centre of the national agenda. Finally, the issue of the fiscal imbalance goes to the very heart of the federal-provincial rela- tions. Will the reaction be piecemeal measures such as the Health Accord? Will the federal government conclude that the provinces are out for a money grab and hold the line? Or will the provinces create the momentum to produce a new fiscal arrangement? None of this promises to be easy or without serious confrontations. Yet it could represent an opportunity to make the federation work better and reduce the grievances of the past that have so often affected relations between the two levels of government.
Every poll in recent years indi- cates the desire of Canadians for their governments to work together. As we move towards more pragmatic, solu- tion-based negotiations, success in federal-provincial relations can be a win-win proposition. The two Health Accords of 2000 and 2003 were help- ful to all governments and their electoral prospects.
If one has listened carefully to Jean Charest since his entry on the provincial scene, his model is the stewardship of Jean Lesage. In the six- ties, Jean Lesage and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson ushered in what has been termed the era of co-operative federalism. Fiscal and tax points agreements, shared-cost programs and a new pension fund were the products of this era. Quebec’s Premier Lesage would go to the table with ini- tiatives and consensus with other provinces. Considering Jean Charest’s past and his knowledge of Canada, one can expect the re-emergence of this model. In addition, the pragma- tism of the Quebec Liberals and the little to no expectation of constitu- tional talks gives Premier Charest much needed leeway in changing Quebec’s approach.
The election of a federalist gov- ernment in Quebec represents both a risk and an opportunity. The risk rests with the sense that Quebec’s unique or distinct character may not be recog- nized or seen as important. The inability to achieve progress on issues considered essential to Quebec could cre- ate an important backlash and nurture the sovereignist agenda. This is the PQ’s hope.
The opportunity comes from a new approach under the leadership of the Quebec pre- mier with the best knowledge of Canada of any other Quebec premier. Charest knows and believes in Canada, but his mandate comes from an electorate where the majority is francophone. This majority is split 50-50 on the sov- ereignty issue. His grasp of Quebec issues and his committment to Canada make him a unique leader at a crucial time in our history.
Change in Quebec and in other areas of Canadian political life are the order of the day. These are grounds for optimism, for this could initiate a dynamic for progress and understand- ing that could make the choice of sov- ereignty a less attractive proposition for the future of Quebec.