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Bring the People of Canada Into the Constitutional Reform Process

11/04/2013 08:28 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

It is time for Canadians to say enough with the moans and groans from our political leaders and the chattering classes about the dangers of constitutional change and a scary quagmire of federal-provincial negotiations.

Constitutional reform is entirely legitimate in the life of a vibrant democracy. The Canadian Senate either needs serious reform or it should be abolished, and whether we like it or not, this requires changes to our Constitution.

In refusing to engage the people in constitutional reform, our leaders forget that the Constitution belongs to the people of Canada, not to the federal and provincial governments. They betray an all-too-familiar fear of a healthy democracy, while protecting their executive power at the expense of the people.

There is no reason why we cannot proceed with overdue constitutional changes while, at the same time, continuing the day-to-day governance of the country. And there is no reason why the constitutional reform process needs to degenerate into an unprincipled free-for-all among provincial governments demanding more and more powers.

In the 21st century, there should be no hesitation in establishing a manageable constitutional change agenda that brings the people of Canada into the centre of the process. This means acknowledging that constitutional reform is not dictated by the self-interested demands of governments, but requires direct input from the citizens of Canada and our consent or dissent through a consultative referendum. Indeed, bringing direct democracy to the constitutional change process is an essential component of any credible overall plan to reduce the dangerous concentration of executive power that is insidiously undermining our representative democracy.

Yes, it is true that our current constitutional amending formula formally requires only executive-level, not popular, consent -- such was the anomalous deal worked out in 1982 among the then federal and provincial leaders. Constitutional amendments must be supported by resolutions of the two Houses of Parliament, and of either a two-thirds majority of provincial legislatures representing 50 per cent of the population (the 7-50 rule), or in some cases, all the provincial legislatures (the unanimity rule).

Subsequent political leaders learned the hard way during the half-decade of debates over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords that notwithstanding the formal amending formula, Canadians refused to be effectively sidelined from the constitutional reform process. Canadians successfully insisted on having our voices heard and the Charlottetown Referendum established an important constitutional precedent that we must be directly consulted on significant constitutional reforms.

Here is a simple message for our politicians, whatever their political stripe: Trust the people.

Give us open, transparent debate on a straightforward issue and we will get it right.

Now that the Senate is so thoroughly discredited, it cannot remain in its current form. So let us take a parliamentary committee across the country to discuss options for an elected Senate and/or its abolition. Then submit two questions in a national referendum: yes or no to abolition of the current Senate, and yes or no to a credible option for a reformed senate.

Do the same thing for electoral reform, since significant change to the First Past The Post system impacts the Constitution and deserves broad public debate and support.

Do the same thing for a new constitutional preamble that would finally describe Canada as something more than an uninspiring arrangement "founded on principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law" - a preamble that would include recognition of the distinctiveness of Quebec, and more accurately reflect our diverse and secular liberal democracy.

But discuss each subject separately. As the Charlottetown Accord definitively demonstrated, it is confusing to undertake multiple constitutional reforms at the same time and in the same document. Linking different reforms can be unprincipled and deprive people of a chance to decide each on its own merits. If discussions proceed simultaneously on different subjects, there should be a separate referendum question on each.

Above all, remember that constitutional change is about people not governments. It is not all about the powers of the Quebec or other provincial governments. Canadians are looking for national leadership to make the clear case to Quebecers and all other Canadians that constitutional amendments -- whether relating to matters of Senate reform, electoral reform, a constitutional preamble, or eventually a new amending formula -- are essential to strengthening Canada and our democratic structures.

And the legitimacy of these reforms depends on the direct assent of the people of Canada even if the signatures on the formal constitutional document are those of the government executives acting in accordance with our wishes as determined in a referendum.

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