A New Vision

Quebec’s most important federalist voice describes the province’s future within Canada.

Benoît Pelletier is the most important voice for the federalist idea in Quebec today. He recently held three senior Quebec Cabinet portfolios; he is a potential successor to Liberal premier Jean Charest or Liberal Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff. Pelletier writes from his current position as a constitutional law professor who enjoys large followings in the broader Quebec public and the academy.

In Une certaine idée du Québec. Parcours d’un fédéraliste. De la réflexion à l’action, Pelletier provides a tour of the past, present and future of Quebec’s place in Canada and on the world stage. His vision is shaped by assessments of the engines driving Quebec’s future: Canada’s federal system, central institutions, devolution of power and the place of minorities in Quebec.

Pelletier shows why he believes that Quebec can best protect its language, culture, identity and institutions within Canada’s federal system, not outside it. On this point, he makes arguments familiar from the federalist side in the old debates. However, Pelletier goes far beyond familiar discourse. He also demonstrates why Canada’s federal system is the best enabler for Quebec to develop itself socially and economically. Pelletier’s narrative on this point is new, full and refreshing.

Pelletier believes Canada’s federal system is a driver of Quebec’s growth and progress. Unlike many Quebec apologists for Canadian federalism—weary proponents of the status quo as being too difficult or costly to change—Pelletier sees Canadian federalism as releasing Quebec’s energies for social and economic progress. He believes in the “ism” of federalism: that federalism as an idea, put into action, promotes recognition of diversity, gives access to a big common market and makes the costs of defence and other attributes of sovereignty manageable for a nation of eight million people. Canadian federalism creates for Quebec a big economic surplus that can be turned toward liberating the dynamism of Quebec’s people. From common histories, traditions and values, Canadians and Quebeckers aspire to many common objectives more easily obtained by common effort.

Canadian federalism, he says, promotes Quebec’s identity: “The promotion of a multiplicity of realities present in Canada and of the variety of ways in which common goals can be achieved is the raison d’être of federalism” (this, as with the other quotes from the book, are my translations from the original French). Quebec is one of these realities. It is an asset for Canada’s development. So too, the Canadian reality is an asset for Quebec.

As a minority French-speaking nation in an overwhelming English-speaking North America, Quebec needs to promote its language, culture and distinctive national identity. Quebec requires assurances that its partners share this view of its vital national needs: that Canadians welcome the specific collective development of Quebec as a Canadian asset. This is why Pelletier argues for recognition of the specificity of Quebec as a distinct national entity in Canada’s constitution. He explains: “Although one can affirm an identity as an individual or a collective, it is also necessary to be recognized by others.”

Canada is constitutionally committed to the equality of the English and French languages. While that is fine as theory, the reality is that all minority languages and their speakers are under constant pressure and must make daily compromises that others do not experience. This is the case with the French language, which is pressured in Canada and threatened in North America. Pelletier supports an asymmetric approach to constitutional powers to allow Quebec to deal with this reality. Quebec’s special challenge to promote the French language requires that it have constitutional power adequate to the task.

Interestingly, Pelletier generalizes the idea of asymmetry. He would promote experimentation with asymmetric constitutional adaptations of various types. This would allow provinces with distinct challenges to respond to their distinct needs. It would also enable various groups in Canada to pursue appropriate forms of autonomy.

Pelletier’s acceptance of Canada’s federal system comes with conditions. The most important is that Canada’s constitution recognize the specificity of Quebec, already discussed. Pelletier also requires decentralization within the Canadian federation.

For Pelletier, decentralization includes respect for the existing constitutional division of powers between federal and provincial governments. He provides many examples of Ottawa’s intrusions into policy fields that the constitution reserves exclusively to provinces, such as labour market training, higher education, health care, science and technology and more.

Pelletier’s case is irrefutable in theory: Ottawa does make repeated policy forays into jurisdictions the constitution reserves for the provinces. But his case is harder to make in practice. The labour market training example provides a useful perspective as to why this is so. Canada spends $1.1 billion for labour market training of aboriginal peoples. More than half of these live off reserve or are not entitled to registration under the Indian Act; accordingly, they are said to be within provincial jurisdiction. It is worth asking: what does Quebec spend on these communities? The answer, which is very little, explains why so many aboriginal people have not reached their full potential in Quebec society.

As a second example, it is hard to see that federal spending on the Canada Research Chairs program, the objective of which is to make Canada one of the world’s top countries in research and development, is objectionable as a constitutional gesture. The provinces have not replaced—many cannot replace—the dollars spent on this worthwhile endeavour.

The reality is that all 24 of the world’s federations experience significant overlapping policy initiatives by central and regional governments. All 24 look more like marble cakes, with swirling, interpenetrating tastes, than they resemble finely separated layer cakes. Comparative federalism teaches that interpenetrating policies and overlapping exercises of power are the norm in federations, not the exception. The modern challenge is to find better techniques of coordination and harmonization of joint efforts. Walling off federal and provincial policy initiatives from each other may sometimes seem desirable to a provincial Cabinet minister; it nevertheless remains a spent idea from outmoded conceptions of federalism.

Pelletier is more convincing when he argues for devolution of power downward, particularly when he extends this argument to the Quebec state. Like Canada, Quebec is over-centralized, according to Pelletier. He believes Quebec should devolve power to regions, to local governments and to aboriginal peoples.

He expands his argument for devolving power downward by chiding Ottawa for commanding an excessive share of the federation’s fiscal resources. He believes Ottawa’s share of national revenues should be curtailed. He reasons that as Ottawa’s overly centralized power is devolved to the provinces, so too should the provinces get a larger share of Canada’s fiscal resources.

Pelletier’s critique of excessive federal dominance of Canada’s fiscal resources can usefully be examined through the lens of comparative federalism. The federal government in Canada gets the smallest share of total fiscal resources of all the federations except for Switzerland. This is true if Ottawa’s share is measured as a proportion of total federal/state/local revenues. Ottawa’s share also remains the smallest, except for Switzerland, if it is measured as a proportion of total federal/state/local expenditures. Moreover, Canada’s provinces are the least dependent on receiving federal transfers to finance their activities among the 24 federations, with the exception of Germany. Canadian provinces have ample revenue-raising sources of their own.

If Pelletier’s critique of excessive federal domination of Canada’s fiscal resources is to be sustained, some additional reasons will have to be given. The case is not made based on the materials he presents.

Pelletier is a Liberal who would reduce the role of the Quebec state in Quebec’s socioeconomic development. Quebec’s model—vigorous use of state resources targeted at specific economic sectors, coupled with generous social supports—has been distinctive since la Révolution tranquille.

Pelletier would introduce a greater mix of private initiatives. He argues that “to strengthen Quebec, we will have to make decisions, efforts and sacrifices and we should not hesitate to swim against the tide … We may rethink state intervention and soften any regulation that suffocates entrepreneurial spirit.”

This idea extends to greater privatization of health care. Pelletier contends that the private sector can play a supporting role in order to improve the quality, efficiency and cost of the healthcare system. While controversial in various parts of Canada, Pelletier’s approach is in line with experiments in certain provinces and other democracies. It also responds to constitutional prodding from the courts.

Canada’s experience with the repatriation of the Canadian constitution was wrenching and divisive. It produced deep changes in Canadian society and identity. The results continue to unfold. Many, myself included, believe Canada to be better for the effort.

Pelletier suggests that Quebec should write its own constitution. He would consolidate existing basic laws in the province, including the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, and add new provisions. These include fundamental values of Quebec society, principles for the organization of Quebec’s political institutions and a constitutional amendment formula. The final document would be subordinate to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but would nonetheless serve as a codification of Quebeckers’ common values.

It will not be easy to secure agreement on these points. Some may question whether the game is worth the candle. It is worth observing that other provinces, and other regional units in other federations, have found the exercise worthwhile.

Pelletier’s views of aboriginal issues are nuanced from his experience of belonging to a minority nation trying to develop itself within a larger anglophone environment: “Quebeckers are well placed to understand that in a democracy, perfect equality of individual rights is equivalent to condemning a minority to extinction.”

Pelletier supports greater autonomy for Quebec’s First Nations and is willing to achieve it by devolving greater power to aboriginal governments. He is alert to the difficulties of implementing broad, abstract aboriginal rights expounded by the Supreme Court since 1973. He observes that the cost of inaction for aboriginal people and their development is high. Inaction is also costly for surrounding non-aboriginal economies, whose industries are exposed to risks from uncertainty, which retards development.

Pelletier is proud of the bilateral and tripartite agreements the Government of Quebec signed with First Nations while he was minister of aboriginal affairs. The reader is likely to be impressed by Pelletier’s enthusiasm for these efforts. Some readers will be left wondering, though, as the author himself wonders, what are the specifics of the path to greater progress for Quebec’s and Canada’s aboriginal people.

Pelletier contends that provinces should be enabled on the international stage in areas of provincial jurisdiction and in areas of joint control between federal and provincial governments. He defends this proposition by drawing attention to the distinct interests provinces have from central governments. One example concerns discussions of culture that occur at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Canada has enabled this by signing an agreement with Quebec giving Quebec official recognition and a formal voice inside of Canada’s delegation at UNESCO.

Pelletier wants Quebec to be a leader in la Francophonie, where, he points out, Quebec has a responsibility for the vitality of the French language and culture. He writes: “Defending one’s language is neither a rearguard action nor obtuse nationalism. It is a noble and legitimate gesture; an appeal for respect.” On this point Pelletier is protective of Quebec’s historical ties to France as the leader of francophone culture, history and traditions; he respects French leadership.

Perhaps too much so. Quebec and Canada have achieved startling successes with integrating the largest percentage of newcomers into a French-speaking society in history. The Canadian multiculturalism model has become an idea emulated by diverse states around the globe. Today, Canadian immigrants and their descendants trumpet with pride their Canadian nationality. Neither Canada nor Quebec is wracked by fractious ethnic strife, as is France.

On this subject, Pelletier prefers to speak of interculturalisme, by which he means recognizing the predominance of the Québécois culture into which other communities integrate but do not assimilate. He is short on details. Many will wonder whether the admired successes of Canada and Quebec with multiculturalism require Pelletier’s new interculturalisme banner. Few will agree that France has anything to teach Quebec on this score.

As the leading federalist voice in Quebec, Pelletier remains committed to the right of the people of Quebec to decide their own political and constitutional future. His view is that, given the right conditions, Quebeckers will opt for the federal system because it best fits and enables them. He explains: “I try to show Quebeckers that Canada is not the only solution, but it is the best solution for them. I fervently believe in the right of Quebeckers to choose their destiny … I defend Canadian federalism knowing all too well that the membership of Quebec in Canada is not unconditional and that this country is not necessarily eternal.”

Pelletier makes a strong case that Canada provides Quebec with socioeconomic benefits that Quebeckers could not otherwise achieve. He is eloquent in describing the shared history, values and emotional ties between Quebeckers and Canadians. He is undoubtedly correct that Canada would not be Canada without Quebec, and that Quebec would not be Quebec without Canada.

Pelletier is a lively and engaging writer who is knowledgeable and passionate about Quebec and Canada. He comes through clearly as an agreeable personality. His vision of Quebec is original in important respects, and frequently detailed. His proposals have garnered assent from many, and are likely to continue to do so.

Readers will feel as though they have participated in a conversation with an informed, charming character of strong convictions. Many readers will feel that they would like to carry on the debate, for it is a pleasant and enriching experience that allows a glimpse into what beats in the heart of the Quebec national character.