Quebec, Stephen Harper And The Decentralization Of Canada

Another Quebec provincial election, another cycle of hand wringing and debate about the future of Quebec and that of Canada.

The whole process repeats itself every four years or so, and very little ever really changes.

Except this time, it might actually turn out to be different.

John Ibbitson at The Globe and Mail has a neat little article explaining, among other things, why this scenario might give Prime Minister Stephen Harper a free pass to dismantle Canadian Federalism out in the open.

It has been well know for years that Mr. Harper is as right wing an ideologue as your most fervent US Tea Partier.  In fact, the blueprint for his Reform Party takeover of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party would be a good study for the American Tea Party movement. (They already have a foot in the door with the selection of Paul Ryan as Republican VP hopeful)

And Stephen Harper is not a Federalist.  He is not a man in favor of a strong, central, Federal Government.

Prior to his ascension to the Prime Minister’s Office, he had written at length about how he prefers more power (much more) for the provinces. How his favorite Province, Alberta, should “build a firewall” to protect its wealth and resources from the rest of Canada.

If you are thinking it is not very patriotic, you’d hear no argument from me.

If you think it is silly to base long term economic policy on a temporary cyclical uptick in one province’s economy, you’d get no argument from me either.

(Canadian history has shown that powerful provincial economies can fall, while once needy provincial economies can become net contributors to Canada)

So how does this tie in to a Quebec election?

Well, it is well known that Mr. Harper played a prominent role in drafting the Reform Party’s strategy for the 1995 Quebec referendum. In fact, he stood with then party leader Preston Manning in Montreal and introduced a twenty-point plan to “decentralize and modernize” Canada in the event of a “no” victory.

So, let’s say a separatist party wins the election in Quebec and they come to Ottawa asking for more goodies.  Now the Prime Minister, Mr. Harper has two choices. Yes, or No.

If he says yes, the other provinces will want equal treatment as spelled out in the 1997 Calgary Declaration.

If he says no, and as a result, Quebec holds a referendum on separation from Canada, there are two additional possible outcomes.

The first, obviously, is that Quebec votes Yes and begins negotiations to separate from Canada.  In this scenario, Mr. Harper is given the same opportunity to dismantle Canada into an association of Provinces as if he had agreed to their demands in the first place.

If Quebec votes No, I believe Mr. Harper will still use the opportunity, during the emotional time of a national unity crisis, to open a “dialogue” with the Provinces, under the guise of preventing this from ever happening again. Expect it to be much the same as he presented in 1995.

In all cases, Mr. Harper can begin to achieve his vision of a less united, decentralized, and more regional Canada.

It is important to point out that Canada is a Federal Parliamentary Democracy within a Constitutional Monarchy, not a Constitutional Republic like the United States.

Most of Mr. Harper’s ideas on the future of the Canadian union appear to be influenced by his admiration for the US style Republic, as he has indicated many times over the years while discussing these same provincial powers.

He and his Reform Party recognized early on that to achieve this, significant changes in Canada’s constitution would need to take place, such as an elected Senate.

Because he and his supporters are in fact, a significant minority in Canadian politics, despite recently forming a majority Government, there has been no political opportunity to push forward with these enormous changes.

Without such support and because such large scale constitutional rewrites require complete support from the provinces, only during a time of crisis would this be likely to happen.

Quebec may just give him the chance.


UPDATE:   Quebec elected a minority PQ government, with the incumbant Liberals trailing by four seats.

Canada’s Globe and Mail picked up on the themes of this article with their post-election editorial. They said: “This is a good moment for Mr. Harper to define his own vision for Canada… Mr. Harper prides himself on decentralizing power. Ms. Marois’s goal is the total decentralization of power – or, to put it another way, the centralization of power in Quebec City.”

Nice to see that The Globe and Mail also reads The Wary Lemming.