08/18/2017 15:56 EDT | Updated 08/18/2017 16:26 EDT

Canada Would Benefit From The Québécois Saying 'Yes' — To Something

A Quebec multiple-choice referendum could be a means to that end.

Paul Vasarhelyi
Quebec and Canadian provincial flag.

After a 25-year hiatus, the Quebec government is approaching other provinces in a roundabout way to reopen the constitution to amendments. There is now unanimity among all five parties in Quebec's National Assembly that the constitutional status quo is not acceptable in the long run. So that begs the question: how do other Canadians respond — or do they?

Media reaction in the rest of Canada brings to mind the Michael Corleone character in "The Godfather Part III" when he ruefully laments his associations: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." Considering how disastrous the last constitutional rounds in the 1980s and '90s turned out, the reticence of Canadians to enter a new one is understandable.

Moreover, it would be legitimate if folks outside Quebec were to wonder: 1) Can these "first-principles"-type constitutional issues ever be resolved so we can move on to other topics? 2) Do the majority of Québécois intrinsically feel Canadian, or is their commitment only really contingent on constitutional change?

Upon reflection, one can question the extent to which the Québécois have ever really chosen Canada. They were originally brought into the British Empire by force. In 1867, Quebec (then known as Lower Canada) did support confederation, but would they have done so had a viable go-it-alone independence option been on the table at the same time?

Alexis Orand/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Referendum on sovereignty in Quebec on Oct. 30, 1995. Former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau voting.

Uppermost on everyone's mind in the 1860s was the ever-present political danger that the U.S. might try to forcibly annex Canada. And the best hedge for the Québécois against that prospect, with its accompanying threat of cultural assimilation — Canada. But in retrospect, this sounds like a marriage of convenience rather than a real commitment of kindred souls.

It would take until the 1940s for Canadians to finally be reassured that the U.S. would not attempt any takeover. And it was not long after that, in 1957, that the first modern democratic movement to create an independent Quebec got underway. Yet even though that option has been defeated in two referendums, the Québécois' thirst for change has not been quenched.

Fast-forward to this year and the Couillard government's latest proposals outlined in its paper "Quebecers, Our Way of Being Canadians."

In a June 18 column, Montreal Gazette columnist Don Macpherson observed, "In the last (constitutional) negotiations, federalists used the threat of secession as what the late political scientist Léon Dion called a "knife at the throat" of the rest of Canada. Not only did that strategy ultimately fail, the very existence of the secessionist movement in Quebec now works against this province, by keeping the rest of the country away from the constitutional bargaining table."

To simply ignore Quebec's requests is to risk validating the impervious narrative with which the province's secessionists have characterized Canada.

Macpherson concludes, "As long as there is even a weak secessionist movement in Quebec, the knife will remain. The only way to get rid of it is for this province to renounce, effectively and permanently, its claim of a right to secede from Canada."

Given that a complete renunciation of secession is unlikely for the foreseeable future, there is another possible way around that "knife-at-the-throat" obstacle: the use of a Quebec multiple-choice referendum to confirm what the province really wants before any possible talks about constitutional amendments can begin.

In this scenario, the other provincial governments of Canada would ask Quebec to first confirm that it has a predetermined threshold of support for any constitutionally-related proposals. A Quebec election is unlikely to have this same clarifying effect given that no party seems poised to win over 50 per cent of the popular vote. A multiple-choice referendum would offer an alternative mechanism to meet a set prerequisite.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a funeral service at Quebec City convention centre for three of the six victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting Friday, Feb. 3, 2017.

At present, even the two federalist parties in the National Assembly (the Quebec Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec) advocate for a level of decentralization with which most non-Quebecers may not identify. So even if the rest of Canada were to entertain such redesigns in order to be accommodating, they would still want to be reassured that any centrifugal shift is not just creeping secession in disguise.

Therefore, a full range of options, from Canada "as is" to outright secession, should be placed on a ballot. Voters could support ranked choices until one option exceeds the required threshold of support, thereby revealing what Quebec really wants.

Surely if the real end goal of the Québécois is to be sovereign, then having that option on the ballot will offer them that choice. Alternatively, if their first preference is some sort of decentralization, at least the rest the country will know where the shopping list for new powers finally ends. And if an "as is" choice wins, it will reveal once and for all that all the previous complaints have only ever been a fetish of Quebec's political class.

Surely if the real end goal of the Québécois is to be sovereign, then having that option on the ballot will offer them that choice.

In any partnership, it can be legitimate for one partner to want to renegotiate its terms even when the other one feels it's untimely or unwarranted. And to simply ignore Quebec's requests is to risk validating the impervious narrative with which the province's secessionists have characterized Canada.

Nevertheless, if other provinces decide to engage, they are also entitled to a process that is honest, clear and decisive. Politely requesting a multiple-choice referendum before any potential Canada-wide talks can be considered, offers a dignified and reasonable venue to that end.

Richard W. Smith is a Quebec-born businessman and educator as well as a contributing author to the 1991 Doubleday book English Canada Speaks Out.

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