How to reclaim our place within Canada

20 May 2014 · 1 comment   

This is the text of the speech I delivered this morning in Montreal before an audience of the Regroupement des jeunes chambres de commerce du Québec.

How to reclaim our place within Canada

Maxime Bernier, MP for Beauce

As was probably the case for many of you, when I reflected on the results of Quebec’s April 7 election, I got the sense that Quebec had reached a turning point in its history. Following a campaign haunted by the spectre of another referendum, the Parti québécois suffered its worst defeat since 1970 and the two federalist parties took home two thirds of the vote. Once again, Quebecers clearly rejected separation and embraced a stable future within the Canadian confederation.

Since the election, the media has devoted a lot of space to the uncertain future of the Parti québécois, and how it might bring young people back into the fold. But given the election results, there is a much more pressing and relevant matter to address, one that has received hardly any attention: How are we, as Quebecers, going to reclaim our place in Canada?

Obviously, this question matters deeply to me, as a federal politician from Quebec. But I am here today, not as a member of the Canadian government, but as a Quebecer wondering what we can do to move our society forward.

The sovereignty issue has monopolized political debate in Quebec for decades. It’s a legitimate debate, but it’s one that just keeps going around in circles.

In the meantime, Quebec must continue to develop. We have serious problems that need fixing. Our public finances are in a sorry state. Ours is one of the most heavily taxed regions in North America, and one of the least wealthy. We need to make massive investments in our crumbling infrastructure. And as our population is aging quickly, we have particular challenges to face when it comes to integrating immigrants and keeping our social programs solvent.

If we are to meet these challenges, we need governments, both in Quebec City and in Ottawa, that are focused on the real issues at hand, not on identity crises, referendum dilemmas and constitutional debates that create uncertainty. What we needs is stability, and not just for the next four years, but for the long term.

As I see it, that stability hinges on three major changes in attitude, all of which are related to Quebec reclaiming its place in Canada.

First of all, we must come to terms with who and what we are, we Quebecers.

Throughout the election campaign, Parti québécois politicians kept repeating that we need to defend our identity and values. And they did this by playing on the fear of the other: fear of immigrants, fear of anglophones, and fear of the rest of Canada.

The truth is, they refuse to accept what Quebec is today. They have always been obsessed with changing it. They aren’t interested in defending OUR identity and OUR values. They want to defend THEIR very narrow view of what our identity and values SHOULD be.

Quebecers make up a nation, and our government has formally recognized that. This nation, however, is a pluralistic one.

To me, accepting Quebec’s diversity and pluralism means recognizing that many identities coexist in Quebec and that each of them is legitimate. Those who identify themselves as francophone Quebecers are not the only “real” Quebecers.

This may seem obvious and straightforward to many of you. I don’t believe that it is obvious at all. For the past fifty years, a nationalist elite has been trying to delegitimize any identity that deviates from a narrowly defined Québécois identity.

In particular, politically correct nationalist rhetoric demands that Quebec be referred to as a solely francophone society, where French is the only language that defines our identity. But this is simply not true.

English isn’t a language spoken by some foreign minority that has to be tolerated because we respect basic human rights. A large English-speaking population has been living in Quebec for a very long time. Unless you believe that only the descendants of French settlers are “real” Quebecers, the undeniable reality is that English has been a part of Quebec’s identity for some 250 years.

Can we not just clearly acknowledge this once and for all? Acknowledge that English is a part of us, a part of our history, a part of our culture and a part of our identity. Acknowledge that English isn’t some foreign language but is one of Quebec’s languages. And consequently, give up the endless battle to restrict its use and its legitimacy through coercive policies.

This doesn’t mean ignoring that French is central to our identity or that without it, Quebec would not exist. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t remain vigilant when it comes to protecting and promoting French, which will always be a minority language in North America. But it would allow us to come to terms with a part of ourselves and put an end to a lot of pointless conflict and animosity between the communities that make up Quebec.

We can lament the defeat at the Plains of Abraham and the British conquest all we want, but at some point, we’re going to have to accept the fact that it happened over 250 years ago, and that Quebec came to be what it is today over the course of those 250 years. Quebec is not some version of New France corrupted by the Anglo‑Canadian presence that needs to be restored to its former purity.

In addition to our French heritage shaping who we are, so too did the English language, and so too did British and Canadian institutions and symbols. Our identity includes all of this. Just like the French fact is part of the identity of all Canadians.

Quebecers have chosen to remain a part of Canada. We should draw the obvious conclusions from this. And that begins with accepting the parts of our history and identity that connect us to Canada.

It’s time to challenge the narrow definition of our identity that the nationalist elite want to impose upon us. It’s time to start looking at other Canadians as fellow citizens and as partners.

The second major change in attitude that I see as necessary if we are to reclaim our place within Canada involves the benefits of federalism.

In the 1970s, Robert Bourassa coined the term “profitable federalism” to counter separatist rhetoric. This was a very poor way of defending the merits of federalism. In the mind of many a Quebecer, the more money we extract from the rest of Canada, the more profitable federalism is deemed to be.

Federalist and separatist Quebec governments have both used the threat of separation to go and get more money. Do you remember the Bélanger‑Campeau commission? The whole debate on the supposed fiscal imbalance? It’s always the same story, the same policy of begging for scraps. Even when Ottawa sends more money, the reaction in Quebec City is that it’s never enough. We always want more, and if we don’t get it, well, then there’s the proof that federalism is not profitable.

This year, Quebec will receive $9.3 billion in equalization payments. This represents more than half of the $16.7 billion in the whole program. This money comes from richer provinces like Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

It is true that other provinces, like Manitoba and the three Maritime provinces, collect even more equalization money per capita than Quebec, making them even more dependent on Ottawa. But that’s no excuse. As a Quebecer, I’m not very proud of the fact that ours is a poor province that receives equalization money.

And it’s not the rest of Canada’s fault that we are a poorer province, as the separatists would have us believe. It should be pretty obvious that unrestrained state intervention doesn’t lead to prosperity. If it did, Quebec would be the richest place in North America instead of one of the poorest.

If we are poorer, it’s because of bad economic policies that make Quebec’s economy less productive. It’s because the first reflex of much of our political class has been to keep begging Ottawa for more money instead of making the decisions that need to be made to fix our problems.

We need to stop looking at our membership in this country in such a selfish way, solely in terms of its financial benefit for us. Asserting our place in Canada means committing to responsible cooperation with our Canadian partners so that the country can function more effectively for EVERY region and EVERY Canadian.

Finally, the third major change in attitude I see as being crucial concerns the reform of federalism.

It’s been a truism for more than a generation that there is only one constitutional position that could rally the vast majority of Quebecers: a more autonomous Quebec within a united Canada. Federalism at its most decentralized while respecting provincial areas of jurisdiction.

But this autonomist position has always been poorly defended. This is because every Quebec government for the last 50 years has undermined it by constantly making unrealistic demands.

Put yourself in the shoes of Canadians in other provinces. For 50 years, they’ve been on the receiving end of two types of demands from Quebecers. On the one hand, there have been the separatists who want to separate but while remaining associated with Canada, sharing a currency, passports and so forth. In short, they wanted all the benefits of belonging to Canada while still being independent.

On the other hand, the federalists have kept demanding special privileges. Their message to the rest of the country has basically been: Quebec is the only special province, and we deserve more powers and influence than the rest of you.

Among other things, we’ve asked our Canadian partners to recognize Quebec as a distinct society and to use that distinction in interpreting the Constitution. We’ve asked for more representatives in Parliament than our population would justify. We’ve asked for the only veto power over constitutional changes. And we’ve asked for all of this while holding a knife to their throats: Say yes or we’ll separate. Every party has engaged in this game of one‑upmanship.

No one in the rest of Canada, nor in Quebec for that matter, wants to reopen the Constitution right now. If we truly want to achieve a more autonomous and prosperous Quebec, we must change our approach completely. And, in fact, there is absolutely no need to amend the Constitution in order to reform federalism; we just need to respect it. Respect the intention of the Fathers of Confederation who wanted a decentralized federation with provinces enjoying autonomy in their jurisdictions.

Imagine the sway and political influence Quebecers would carry if they rallied behind this vision of autonomy, one supported by a large majority. Imagine how much sway and political influence Quebecers would wield if they joined forces with other like‑minded Canadians who also want to live in a more decentralized Canada with less state control.

In the 1990s, the Reform Party, one of the two parties responsible for making the Conservative Party of Canada what it is today, put forward a vision of federalism that was quite decentralized. So it is with good reason that I support a similar vision as part of the Conservative Party.

What’s more, Quebecers need to take their rightful place in federal political parties if they wish to advance their interests and their vision of the country.

The Liberal Party of Canada has for decades been the party of centralization and of interference in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Now again, its leader Justin Trudeau is proposing that the federal government interfere in the area of education, an exclusively provincial area of jurisdiction according to our Constitution.

The NDP is a socialist party that wants to centralize everything so it can intervene everywhere. It is not at all in the interests of Quebecers to have a large, interventionist government in Ottawa limiting our individual freedom, because this will make us, and all Canadians, poorer.

We, the Conservatives, have a different vision to offer: that of a more modest, less interventionist government in Ottawa, a government that respects provincial autonomy. The Conservative Party of Canada is the natural vehicle for advancing the vision of federalism that is most widely embraced in Quebec.

For half a century, the political history of Quebec in Canada has amounted to a series of constitutional failures and failed referendums. One of the biggest reasons for these failures, in my view, has been an unhealthy and unrealistic attitude. We need to change our attitude.

We have chosen to remain Canadians, so let’s reassert our place within Canada!

  • Let’s come to terms with our history and our pluralistic identity;
  • Let’s stop begging Ottawa for help and instead solve our problems ourselves;
  • Let’s forge alliances with other Canadians who want decentralized federalism;
  • Let’s reclaim our place within Canada so that Quebec can thrive and prosper within the Canadian confederation.

Thank you.

1 comment to “ How to reclaim our place within Canada ”

  1. Richard J. Riendeau say :

    A well written commentary!

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