‘We are not opening the Constitution’: Trudeau pans Quebec’s plans

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As Premier Philippe Couillard kicks off a renewed discussion about Quebec signing on to the 1982 Constitution, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants no part of it.

“You know my views on the Constitution,” Trudeau told reporters in French on Thursday morning in Ottawa. “We are not opening the Constitution.”

The CBC’s French-language service, Radio-Canada, was among media reporting late Wednesday that Couillard is set to release a 200-page document outlining his government’s vision of Quebec’s role within Canada and laying out arguments in support of reopening negotiations.

Couillard has a news conference scheduled for 1:30 p.m. ET in Quebec City, and CBC News will carry it live.

Premier Philippe Couillard’s policy statement on Quebec-Canadian relations LIVE0:00

Reports Wednesday suggested there’s no fixed date or clear timeline for the coast-to-coast consultations envisioned by the Quebec government.

“It’s a question of prioritizing what we as a federal government need to do, and the priorities that have been expressed by Quebecers and may I say, by all Canadians, is that we should focus on the economy and on the creation of jobs,” ,” Transport Minister Marc Garneau said after Thursday’s cabinet meeting.

“That’s a full-time job,” the Quebec minister said.

Good timing?

Federal MPs in Ottawa on Thursday acknowledged Couillard’s right to raise the issue, but didn’t seem eager to prioritize it.

“I don’t think there’s much appetite among Canadians regarding this,” said Quebec Liberal Pablo Rodriguez.

“It has to be settled one day or the other,” admitted his caucus colleague, Denis Paradis, but “if some people don’t want to talk about it right now, it’s not the right timing.”

‘The fact that Quebec never signed is not a small detail. It has to be corrected eventually’ – NDP leadership candidate Guy Caron

“I think most people in federal politics would rather that we not reopen the Constitution, but it’s not really our decision to make, is it?” said Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, pointing out that other issues can’t be resolved — Senate reform and environmental rights among them — without wading in.

“If you’re looking at a time to have that conversation, it’s certainly better to have it at a time when we’re not in a crisis,” she said.

‘Radical federalist’

Conservative Jacques Gourde said in French that this debate takes political courage.

“It certainly is not an easy topic to broach,” said NDP MP Matthew Dubé, who said his party is open-minded, but other issues need to be dealt with in the short term.

“The prime minister owes an ear to [Couillard’s proposal] even if he has a firm position on the issue which I completely understand.”

MPs divided over reopening Constitution1:44

“The fact that Quebec never signed is not a small detail. It has to be corrected eventually,” said New Democrat Guy Caron, praising Couillard’s approach as constructive.

“The fact that we are saying no to opening talks, to even have this discussion will actually lead nowhere,” he said. “We have a display of good intentions which have simply been rejected with a simple hand wave.”

Bloc Québécois MP Xavier Barasalou-Duval said Trudeau’s reaction is a sign of how the prime minister is not open to Quebec, calling him a “radical federalist.”

“He doesn’t want to speak, doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t want to hear. So it’s not the way that you should drive a country,” he said. “We see that there’s no opportunity in Canada.”

Divisive history

Quebec was the only province not to sign on to Canada’s Constitution in 1982 after a passionate and divisive debate.

The province’s status within Canada became one of the most contentious issues in Canadian politics over the next two decades, with two failed attempts by the subsequent Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney — the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords — to bring Quebec into the Constitution under new terms.

Quebec Constitution Debate 201706601

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard (right) and his house leader Jean-Marc Fournier previewed the Liberal government’s discussion paper about Quebec signing on to the 1982 Constitution for The Canadian Press on Wednesday. Couillard wants Trudeau to read the plan before closing the door on the idea. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The Liberal prime minister who came next, Jean Chrétien, was at the helm when the 1995 Quebec referendum vote nearly returned a majority in favour of pursuing independence. His government brought then constitutional expert Stéphane Dion into cabinet to lead the federal response, ultimately resulting in the Clarity Act, which sets out the terms for any future sovereignty referendum.

Dion is now Canada’s ambassador to Germany and Trudeau’s special envoy to the European Union.

During former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper’s tenure, the House of Commons passed a controversial motion recognizing the Québécois as a nation.

The constitutional front has been largely quiet since then, with federal and provincial sovereigntist parties finding lower levels of support and governments at both levels focusing on other issues in the federal-provincial relationship.

When Couillard became leader of the Quebec Liberals in 2013, the strong federalist said he was in favour of reopening the discussion to help the province “reintegrate into the Canadian family.”

This would be his first meaningful step towards that goal.

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‘We are not opening the Constitution’: Trudeau pans Quebec’s plans

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