I regret that all too often new ideas are too rapidly rejected outright. There are forces in Canada and Quebec that have a deep-seated aversion to progress and that cling to the status quo as if it were some kind of life raft.
We must be willing to dare, to dare to change things. Those who refuse to accept change, whether it be in rela- tion to federalism or to any other field, are in fact saying that they do not believe in the possibility of a better future.
I myself am an optimist. I am proud of what we have accomplished. And I am enthusiastic about what we can achieve.
This evening I would like to share a few thoughts with you on Canadian federalism and Quebec. Let me take you back six years.
In a speech in 1999, I invited Canadians and their leaders to start preparing for a Quebec federalist gov- ernment so that we can join together in building a Canadian agenda that reflects our history, our hopes and our aspirations for the future. Why did I choose the words Canadian agenda? Because in my experience Canadians have allowed sovereignists to dominate the Canadian agenda for too long, to define what our agenda is, as opposed to those of us who believe in Canada, who think this country is worth the time, the effort, the dedication to devise our own agenda, an agenda for change.
My message to them was: prepare to move rapidly and decisively to resolve longstanding issues.
My government was elected in April of 2003. Our election was widely received by Canadians as a challenge to those who would separate Quebec from Canada. What may not have been apparent then is that the election of my government was also a chal- lenge to those who seek to preserve the status quo within Canada.
The election of my government is in fact a challenge to both those groups, to all those who choose to deny or dimin- ish our common history. As we know, Canada is still young and still growing. We have yet to reach our full potential, and Canada will continue to grow as long as we remember and respect the basic tenets of our foundation.
I remain convinced that federal- ism is a modern way of governing. Why? Because it combines unity, diversity and decentralization.
Unity, because we share common values and a common vision. Because there are causes and stakes that require that we opt for a united approach; that we pool our efforts; that we cooperate so that we can develop, prosper and live in safety.
Diversity, because no one wants to give up their identity. Because no sin- gle group wants to fall under the dom- ination of others. Because the desire to retain real control over one’s environ- ment and one’s future is only natural. Federalism allows diversity. It is a method of governance that is adapted to the complexity of our societies.
Decentralization because federal- ism permits decentralized governance, when this is preferable and more effi- cient. It also offers a political counter- weight to central governments, which helps to enrich democratic life. In this sense, the concept of federalism is closely linked to the notion of free- dom, as the first architects of modern federalism taught us.
I strongly believe that Canada must renew with the spirit of federal- ism and turn away from centralist temptations. I made a commitment as premier of Quebec to exercise my lead- ership and work with my counterparts to ensure Quebec continues to grow within Canada.
The word ”œfederal” means the opposite of ”œunilateral.” The danger to our federation is not that Quebec or any other province wants to govern in its own way. Rather, it is the view that all provinces and territories are the same.
All too often in politics, what we cherish most we may inadvertently dam- age by believing that protecting some- thing means freezing it in time, when in fact protecting it may require change. In a changing world, the status quo is syn- onymous with going backwards.
And we should not be intimidated by the fact that there are disagree- ments in any relationship. Indeed, this is only normal. In fact, the issue is not whether or not there are disagree- ments. Rather, it is whether and how we are addressing these disagreements.
Five principles should guide the spirit of federalism in Canada. Indeed, these five principles are not only valid for governing by federation, but also for governments around the globe in the 21st century.
The first principle involved in revi- talizing Canadian federalism is respect.
Healthy cooperation cannot exist without a profound respect shared among the partners in the federation: respect for each other’s jurisdictions, respect for each other’s choices, respect for each other’s expertise and abilities.
The underlying principle here is the recognition that the Quebec govern- ment and other provincial governments are not subordinate to the government of Canada. And the federal government is not the supreme guardian of the com- mon good. In a federation, each partner guards the common good within its own area of responsibility.
And the judge of how we do as guardians of the common good is not the federal government but rather our citizens.
The second principle involved in renewing federalism is flexibility.
Homogeneity may have been the utopia of the 20th century. The 21st century, however, will be guided by flexibility, respect for differences, and asymmetry.
Our country was constituted fed- erally specifically to establish an asym- metrical system, to allow for differences, to respect the unique char- acteristics of each partner across our immense geographical territory. The 20th century put the federal model to the test, notably by the temptation to strive for uniformity, a concept which people often confuse with equality.
One can be equal, while being dif- ferent. In fact, true equality includes the right to be different. Indeed, it is by striving for uniformity everywhere and by requiring it from everyone that we encroach on the right to equality.
Flexibility participates in the very essence of federalism. But flexibility does not mean that there are no rules. On the contrary, the need for rules that apply to both orders of government is one of the basic tenants of federalism.
But the rules of federalism must reflect the fact that federalism is first and foremost a system of gover- nance rooted in reality, one that postulates that the institutions cre- ated must adapt to the surrounding environments and not seek to melt down the characteristics of the vari- ous regions in a common mould. Clearly, federalism calls for asym- metrical arrangements.
When we signed an agreement on health last September, a chorus of voic- es immediately began to criticize the agreement. Strange as it may seem, these criticisms did not deal with the result of the agreement on health services; moreover, they did not ensue from a desire, outside Quebec, to benefit from the same terms and conditions.
Instead, these criticisms were direct- ed against asymmetry itself, against the possibility that the other party, in this case Quebec, could be different.
For me, the greatness of federalism does not lie in having one reason or one vision prevail, but rather in being able to accommodate several reasons or sev- eral visions, like the many facets of a jewel. That is the Canadian ideal.
Let me give you another example. During the winter, Quebec and the federal government reached an agreement on parental leaves that will allow Quebec to have its own program. This system will be more generous than the federal one. For exam- ple, Quebec’s system will recognize self-employed workers. This will be a very important program for Quebec couples who want to found a family. We are very proud of this achievement.
Is this agreement proof that Canadian federalism works well?
The situation is anything but clear. I invite you to reflect on this matter in light of the following question:
Is it normal that Quebec had to negotiate for eight years to be able to act as it sees fit in a field that falls under its jurisdiction? Canadian feder- alism can be more flexible.
Respect for the rule of law is the third principle.
Flexibility does not imply the absence of rules. In Canada, our actions must adapt to the law and the law to our actions. When there is a dis- agreement on principles, the resulting conflict can be taken to the courts for settlement according to the priorities we have put into law.
A mature legal debate is often better than a never-ending political dispute. Court decisions are occasionally the best way to advance a political issue.
Get news and insights into the workings of the public service from veteran journalist Kathryn May. Delivered to your inbox.
A legal state is one which can rely on the courts for clarification. The gov- ernment of Quebec will not deprive itself of this recourse. Reconciling law with action also implies that we can change the rules when they no longer reflect our values as a society.
The fourth principle is balance: fiscal and political balance.
This is a subject that deserves more consideration given the chal- lenges facing our federation today. Long-term balance cannot exist in a federation if one level of government is in a position that diminishes the relationship between the two levels of government.
In Canada, we are experiencing a fiscal imbalance. Not something we are fabricating for political mileage, but rather a reality that has been acknowledged by the Council of the Federation, by three federal political parties, and by a majority of sitting members of the federal Parliament.
In the 1990s, balancing the federal budget coincided with diminishing provincial budgets. The federal govern- ment solved its own problems by unilat- erally cutting transfers to the provinces. According to a Conference Board of Canada study commissioned by the fed- eral government, federal surpluses between 2004-2005 and 2014-2015, over ten years, will reach $166 billion dollars.
Why is it that our federal govern- ment has resources beyond its needs while the provinces have needs beyond their resources?
The federal government is collecting more revenue than it needs, while the provinces and territories, several of which are already in deficit, are receiving less revenue than they need. Since 1997, the federal government has systematical- ly under-estimated its revenues and has accumulated $74.1 billion in surpluses. Each week, the federal government col- lects $300 million more than it spends.
The revenues and responsibilities of each are out of balance. By using its spending power to invade areas of provincial jurisdiction, the federal line of argument runs counter to the spirit of federalism. And this is not the only example.
When the federal government responds with ”œJust raise your taxes,” it ignores both the reality and history of this country. The reality is that tax- payers are funding both levels of gov- ernment and their ability to pay is limited. The history is that our federal government has grown by unilaterally taking a greater share of the taxes.
Also, in a federation where solidar- ity is a fundamental value, such as in Canada, we must ensure that a fiscal balance exists across different regions of the country ”” while respecting the principles of federalism.
In Canada, we have an excellent way of redistributing wealth between fed- eral partners to ensure that each govern- ment is able to provide quality services based on comparable tax levels for citi- zens across all regions of the country.
Equalization isn’t just a program of the federal government. It is part of our Constitution. It is a constitutional obli- gation. But we have some work to do yet before fulfilling this obligation, which is so essential to our federation. Indeed, we have work to do to correct the fiscal and financial imbalance in Canada ”” and the ensuing political imbalance.
I will now address the question of international relations, which should come to no surprise. In Quebec for instance, we emphasize the need for provincial participation in the interna- tional treaty negotiations that affect our jurisdiction.
Other provinces share these con- cerns. It is right and it makes sense. Nobody should challenge the fact that Canada is stronger when all its con- stituents can express themselves, and let’s remember that while Ottawa would like to sign all the treaties it wishes, it cannot implement those in areas falling under provincial jurisdiction.
Here is a sphere where I have been frankly surprised by some commentators because Quebec and other provincial governments have wanted to participate in international negotiations.
Let me remind you that for more than 40 years Quebec has been active at the international level. It has entered into a large number of international agreements with foreign governments. Quebec has a network of delegations and offices around the world. Over the years, we have developed profitable ties and invaluable cooperation. We have a special relationship with France, a country with which we have a direct and privileged relationship.
In practice, the absence of clear rules has not prevented the deploy- ment by certain provinces, Quebec in particular, of a constant international presence, while respecting Canada’s foreign policy.
Even though it is difficult and may arouse strong reactions, we must take up the challenge of devising fair, functional and foreseeable rules per- mitting the participation of federated entities in international negotiations. However, to succeed, we will have to change certain mentalities.
We have to overcome resistance. In Canada, whenever there is talk of the provinces’ place in international rela- tions, I often hear my fellow country- men say that Canada must speak with a single voice at the international level.
With all my heart, I want my country to be strong. I am no great fan of discordant voices. But I cannot conceive why the provinces must systematically be absent from the international stage and not be allowed to take part in negotiations at this level.
The objective here is not to call into question Canada’s foreign policy, on the contrary. To the extent that the assistance of the provinces is necessary for the implementation of the treaties signed by Canada, how could dialogue with the provinces and the presence of provincial representatives and experts at the negoti- ating table make Canada less strong?
It is in the absence of such dia- logue that Canada may find itself con- fronted with the real danger of not being able to meet the obligations it has agreed to.
Can several voices not reinforce one another and carry more weight than a single voice? In my opinion, they can. A case in point is the close cooperation between the government of Quebec and the government of Canada within the context of the work of UNESCO to draft an agreement on cultural diversity.
A more personal example that I like to quote is the full participation of the provinces and territories to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Canada’s success at this summit was possible because of Brian Mulroney’s leadership on the international stage and in par- ticular on environment issues. I had the privilege of leading Canada’s dele- gation. I like to remind people of this experience if only for the sake of demonstrating that I practice what I preach as federal minister or as premier of Quebec.
More basically, how can one refuse federated, democratically elected gov- ernments access to the international stage when so many non-governmen- tal organizations (unions, companies, etc.) already have this privilege?
Federalism is the addition of voices. It is not reducing them to one. Federalism, like democracy, is a process which, while it may at times seem labo- rious, less expeditious, less uniform, because it encourages greater participa- tion, generally produces better results.
I must point out that Canada has recently gone to work on this issue, thanks in particular to Prime Minister Paul Martin and Pierre Pettigrew, his minister of Foreign Affairs. Work is under way between the provinces and the federal government on the frame- work principles that are to guide the participation of the provinces in internation- al negotiations and forums.
Let me now say a few words about the Council of the Federation. The Council is a new institu- tion with great potential. While the Council is only in its infancy, we have made progress on health care and on internal trade, for example.
We have met many times and have had opportunities to work cooperatively together, and we will continue to do so in the future. For the first time in a long time, the regions, the provinces and the territories strive to find a common voice and a com- mon will.
I see great potential for the Council of the Federation, especially given the fact that the Senate is no longer playing its intended role.
I will conclude by saying that Canada must respect the spirit of fed- eralism for the sake of all its citizens. This spirit of cooperation, openness and acceptance of differences is what we all need to successfully take up our challenges.
I accept that challenge by defend- ing the interests of Quebecers with conviction and confidence.
I will do it for a very simple rea- son. I will do it because I believe in Quebec. And I will do it because I believe in Canada.
La version francÌ§aise de ce discours est disponible sur le site Web du premier ministre : www.premier.gouv.gc.ca