Québec and its institutions have roots that go deep into the history of North America, marked by the age-old presence of the Aboriginal peoples and by French and British colonization. The foundations for federalism and the cohabitation of Canada’s peoples were laid well before the Federation itself emerged 150 years ago.
Ongoing discussions between 1864 and 1867 resulted in a federative compromise that gave Québec the political and legal autonomy it needed to safeguard its language, civil-law tradition and religion. Canada was one of the first modern states, if not the first, to devise a form of federalism that had, as one of its primary goals, the accommodation of different national, cultural and linguistic identities, rather than just territorial identities.
During the first half-century of the Federation, the supporters of a centralized model were unable to implement their vision. Québec and the other provinces, led by Ontario, lobbied effectively to ensure that their exclusive powers were respected.
In later years, the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s led to calls for more vigorous intervention by the federal state in the economy. However, such centralized approach could not be reconciled with the defence of provincial autonomy which relies, among other things, on the idea of a compact. In other parts of Canada, several attempts were made to present Canada not as the result of a compact between free and autonomous provinces, but as a mere creation of the imperial Parliament.
In Québec, the idea that Canada resulted from a federative compromise designed, in particular, to preserve the specificity of the Québec nation, was still current, while the rest of Canada gradually moved in another direction. These competing visions of what Canada ought to be contributed, to a large degree, to the growing gap between Québec and the rest of Canada.
During the Quiet Revolution, the simultaneous development of the Québec and Canadian states led to significant growth in the field of intergovernmental relations and to increasing overlaps in the areas of jurisdiction of each order of government.
Given this situation, Québec used the idea of asymmetry to develop a state that would be able to meet its aspirations. The Government of Québec obtained the right to opt out of certain federal programs, while French-speaking Quebecers took on an increasingly important role in the economy. On the international stage, Québec based the legitimacy of its actions on the Gérin-Lajoie doctrine. In short, Québec was able to develop and achieve a considerable degree of autonomy and prosperity within a flexible federal system.
The growth of the Québec state occurred alongside a far-reaching redefinition of Québec’s identity, as French Canadians became Quebecers. Québec’s national identity, with its specificity and historical anchor, rich of its diversity, is resolutely affirming itself in Canada and North America.
The years leading up to the Federation mark the start of a dark period in Aboriginal history. The Aboriginal peoples were no longer considered to be strategic allies after the end of the colonial wars and the decline in the fur trade—instead they were treated as a population that, deprived of any autonomy, needed to be supervised.
The two centuries of assimilation that followed the Royal Proclamation of 1763 are seen in a new light today, and their underlying imperialism, colonialism and paternalism are condemned. This major shift in perspective began in the 1970s in the courts, when they ruled on the existence of Aboriginal rights.
Through these developments, Canada has seen an unprecedented political and social resurgence in its Aboriginal peoples. The Aboriginal question is increasingly seen as a key item on the agenda.
In 1867, French-speaking Canadians living outside Québec did not receive the guarantees they needed to ensure their growth as a community and, in practical terms, were abandoned to their fate as a minority. They had no representatives at the negotiations leading up to the Constitution Act, 1867 and, in the early decades of the 20th century, Francophone communities, especially in Ontario and Western Canada, were under strong pressure to assimilate.
In 1969, French, the minority language in Canada, was given official status when the federal parliament passed the Official Languages Act. After a century marked by numerous infringements of French-language rights, a new trend slowly began to emerge.
Today, bilingualism is a key component of Canada’s identity. The provincial and territorial governments, as well as the federal government, recognize and affirm the Francophonie as an integral part of Canadian identity. Constitutional recognition for this linguistic duality has provided leverage for the growth of services in French. Therefore, despite a relative decline in the use of French in Canada, the future today is brighter than before.
The decades from 1960 to 1990 saw numerous constitutional events. The federal government wanted to introduce a procedure to allow constitutional amendments to be made in Canada, ensuring the country’s emancipation from the United Kingdom, while Québec demanded, unsuccessfully, a redefinition of the division of powers and recognition for its nationhood in the Constitution. In the spring of 1980, the government led by René Lévesque sought to obtain a mandate to negotiate a new form of sovereignty-association between Québec and Canada; it was rejected by 60% of the electorate in the referendum held on May 20, 1980.
Later on, the federal government once again attempted to reach an agreement with the provinces, before deciding to repatriate the Constitution unilaterally. Eight provinces were strongly opposed to this approach and some, including Québec, brought the matter before the courts. In September 1981, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government’s plan to unilaterally patriate the Constitution, although legally valid, could not be achieved on the basis of constitutional conventions. The parties were forced to resume their negotiations. Following an agreement in November 1981 between the Government of Canada and the governments of nine provinces, a new Constitution Act came into force on April 17, 1982, without Québec’sassent. This event created a historic rift between Québec and Canada, and the growing gap between the two conceptions of federalism was thrown into stark relief.
On May 9, 1986, Québec’s Minister of Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs, Gil Rémillard, revealed the conditions on which Québec would adhere to the Constitution Act, 1982. On April 30, 1987, an agreement in principle was signed by the federal prime minister and the provincial premiers. Despite this unanimous agreement, two provincial legislative assemblies, in Manitoba and Newfoundland, were unable to ratify the proposal within the deadline.
In the spring of 1991, the report by the Bélanger-Campeau Commission defined two possible ways forward for Québec: renewed federalism or sovereignty. At the same time, the Beaudoin-Dobbie Committee made a series of recommendations that went on to form the basis for the Charlottetown Accord, including recognition for Québec as a distinct society, while highlighting the importance of French-speaking minorities throughout Canada and of the English-speaking minority in Québec, an elected Senate, and a stronger Canadian economic union. The Charlottetown Accord was submitted for approval in a referendum held on October 26, 1992, and rejected by 57% of the electorate in Québec and 54% in the rest of Canada.
On September 7, 1995, Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau tabled Bill 1, An Act respecting the future of Québec, in the National Assembly. It proposed that Québec should democratically become a sovereign country and authorized the National Assembly to proclaim Québec’s sovereignty. On October 30, 1995, electors in Québec were asked to vote, in a referendum, on the following question: “Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”. In the final result, 50.58% of the electorate answered ”No“ and 49.42% ”Yes“.
Today, more than twenty-five years have elapsed since the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and Québec has still not formally agreed to the constitutional order established in 1982. The five conditions set out in the Accord as the prior conditions for Québec’s adhesion were directly related to the original vision for the federative compromise and were intended to reintroduce, into the Constitution Act, 1982, the spirit of the Federation of 1867. They offer a clear illustration of the constitutional guarantees required to ensure suitable recognition for the Québec nation.