Canada: home of the world’s most flexible constitution

Is Canada a country?

Yes, I know Canada is a country in the land-mass sense of the word. You really can’t miss Canada on a map. It’s that massive slab of land, quite often coloured pink to show we’re part of the British Commonwealth (the same reason I added a ‘u’ to ‘colour’). We have borders, and governments (of sorts) and laws and all that country stuff. But are we a country in the sense that the U.S. and Russia and France and Germany and Australia are countries, nations with distinctive cultures and attitudes? What are Canadians, other than less loud Americans?

For example, real countries have constitutions. We have one, too. Sort of. 

Quebec wants to make unilateral changes to the constitution. They’re all about language, of course; everything in Quebec is about language. Quebec wants to add two new subsections to the constitution, proclaiming Quebec “a nation” and “affirm the only official language of Quebec is French.” Quebec, as you may or likely may not know, is the only province in Canada that has not signed on to the constitution – but it believes it can unilaterally change a document they have never signed up for. What’s more Canadian than that?

But Quebec wants it, and that’s good enough for our so-called national political parties, who know the path to power runs through La Belle Province (or maybe it should be La Belle Nation)

Last week, the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa put forward a motion seeking support for Quebec’s proposed constitutional amendments. Unanimous support would have allowed the motion to go forward without debate. When the question was put to MPs, there was the expected kowtowing; in Canada, it’s better not to discuss contentious matters. However, there was one single dissenting voice – ex-Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who denied the unanimous consent. 

“Dismaying how political partisanship/pandering leads MPs to abandon core legal norms (+ common sense) & try to avoid debate on critical constitutional matters,” Wilson-Raybould said on her Twitter account.

She’s absolutely correct. A province wants to change the constitution, and the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP didn’t even think that this issue is worth debating. I assume from this attitude that if Alberta wanted to insert a clause, say, in support of pipelines, MPs would be OK with that. Or if Prince Edward Island wanted to enshrine the potato as Canada’s national vegetable, this would be fine, too. 

I wanted to hear from those silent MPs. So, I sent this email to five MPs (four Conservatives, and one New Democrat):

“As an Albertan, I am deeply concerned about Quebec’s decision to unilaterally change the constitution. I was shocked when a motion to agree to this plan would have been passed unanimously by the House of Commons had it not been for one dissenting vote.
My question to you is this: do you believe that Quebec has the right to unilaterally change the constitution, and if so, does Alberta have the same right?
A bigger question … are we one country or not?
I look forward to your reply.”

I won’t reveal the names of the MPs in case I get later responses. To date, I have received one reply. I won’t reveal the politician’s name, because I don’t want to get the MP in trouble in case this response does not match his party’s position.

The MP called the constitution “sacred”, and that we should not allow “willy-nilly changes when we have an unhappy province.” The MP called the BQ motion “ridiculous”, and pointed out that it was non-binding and largely ceremonial, saying all it took was one person to ensure it didn’t pass, and “thankfully” Jody Wilson-Raybould “spoke up”. 

“I respect provincial jurisdiction but also don’t agree with the precedent that the unilateral changing of the Canadian constitution would set.”

OK, good answer. But it doesn’t answer the question why nobody from the Conservative party objected to the motion, and why Conservative leader Erin The Tool (sorry, O’Toole) said Quebec is perfectly within its rights. 

Heck of a country we have here. If nothing else, we can brag that we have a constitution written on an Etch-A-Sketch. 

By Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas is a lifelong Albertan, award-winning writer and reporter, and a former MLA for Edmonton-Meadowlark.

1 comment

  1. Our national unity is a little sickly, isn’t it? My thought is the provinces want to run themselves as mostly-independent governments, with the federal government only there to pay for things that are too expensive or run things the provinces don’t care about. Alberta is threatening separation if we don’t get substantial changes to the constitution to favour (remembered the u ;-)) us, so we’re attempting tactics similar to Quebec. Without Quebec’s population, though, we just don’t have a big enough stick to wave around. At least Alberta is actually part of the constitution; changing a document you never even signed up for is pretty brazen.

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