Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
A Country Going To Pieces

Michael Bliss
National Post 22 October 2004  

In the next few years we are going to learn what would have happened to Canada if Pierre Trudeau had never entered politics.

The stamp he put on Canada is being undermined by a new generation of politicians who have no regard whatever for his belief in the need to maintain a strong central government.

Paul Martin's government has put Canada squarely back on the path that Lester Pearson's Liberals were taking in the 1960s, before Trudeau emerged to speak for one Canada. There is no significant opposition in Ottawa to the institutionalization of special status for Quebec, and apparently any other province that asks for it. The silly, obscene concept of "asymmetrical federalism" has become conventional wisdom. The leader of the Opposition, Stephen Harper, is advancing a vision of a new Canada modeled on Belgium. It would all be laughable if we were not witnessing the death of a beautiful dream.

The dream, held by countless millions of Canadians throughout our history and every significant prime minister from Macdonald and Laurier through King, Diefenbaker and Trudeau, was of a federation that would evolve into a great and influential nation thanks to its wonderful endowment of resources, its people's energies and a constitution that neatly split the responsibilities of governing between a national power and provincial authorities. Ottawa's responsibility was to create the conditions under which Canadians could move freely from sea to sea, grow wealthy together and come to express themselves in the councils of the world.

As it has been in Canada since 1867, the dialogue between the principal layers of government in a federation is continuous and sometimes acrimonious. In the 1960s, as Quebec nationalists became more and more determined to expand the province's sovereignty and to achieve special status in Canada, a confused federal government propounded a concept of "co-operative federalism" that became a euphemism for making a long and seemingly endless series of concessions to the provinces, including accepting special programs and arrangements for Quebec. Their appetites whetted, Quebec nationalists began demanding more, including the right to their own foreign policy.

Many historians, including myself, believe that Canada in the mid-1960s was slipping toward national dissolution. Fortunately, Mr. Trudeau emerged in the late part of that decade to remind us of the need to respect classic Canadian federalism, and to resist demands from the provinces, especially Quebec, that would have destroyed the country.

From 1968 to 1984, Pierre Trudeau and his followers fought Quebec nationalism and separatism to at least a draw, one of their most important accomplishments of course being the patriation of our constitution with its charter of fundamental rights and freedoms. There would be no special status for provinces in the Canadian constitution, and the ultimate sovereign body would be the people of Canada.

Brian Mulroney and the provincial premiers attempted to undo Mr. Trudeau's legacy with first the Meech Lake and then the Charlottetown Accords. These were resisted and defeated by a coalition of Trudeauites, led by Trudeau himself, and, in the 1992 referendum, by the people of Canada. After 1993, Trudeau's last Liberal lieutenant, Jean Chrétien, struggled inconsistently, sometimes incoherently, to maintain key elements of the Trudeau settlement in the teeth of relentless pressures from Quebec and other provinces for national devolution.

It is now apparent that the Chretien government based much of its Quebec strategy on the appallingly corrupt sponsorship program, the exposure of which is having disastrous consequences in delegitimizing the federal government in Quebec.

Paul Martin's government, however, isn't even trying. It has conceded special status to Quebec in the separate accord on health care, has gone on record as being committed to asymmetrical (a euphemism for unequal) federalism and has thrown wide open the possibility of a Quebec role in foreign policy. Quebec nationalists, and the very canny Quebec Premier, Jean Charest, are having a field day, upping the ante, speculating on whether there are any limits to Quebec becoming an independent country within the hollow shell of something called Canada.

Scattered voices of Trudeauvian dissent within the Liberal party are going largely unheard as the visionless, disorganized Martin machine blunders along from day to day: Having chosen to invest most of his government's energies in fields of provincial jurisdiction -- health care, cities, child care -- a confused Prime Minister appears to believe that he has no choice but to pander to the provinces. The alternative, of Ottawa literally minding its own business and working to strengthen our national economy and role in the world, seems inconceivable to the current government.

Unfortunately, it is also inconceivable to the Conservative opposition. Stephen Harper, who some of us had once hoped might have the potential to rise to national stature, has sold out the nationalist legacy of Conservatives. In endorsing asymmetrical federalism, Mario Dumont's concept of Quebec autonomy within Canada and the idea of moving toward linguistic-based institutions modeled on Belgium, Mr. Harper would speed up, rather than slow down, the pace of national disintegration.

So there is Canada's future: the Belgium of North America. Words fail -- except to note that Stephen Harper has become his own Randy White.

Pierre Trudeau is dead, and he has left no intellectual heirs on the national stage. The quality of discourse in Canada about the constitution and federalism is pathetic -- except in Quebec where a 40-year old agenda is now being pursued with renewed vigour. The other provinces, battered for years by Ottawa's truly inept meddling on issues from health care to gun control, have no more interest in upholding a national vision. There is no leadership, no politician daring to speak for Canada.

As I write these gloomy words, Canada is prospering. The dollar is high, the national finances are in order, there is peace and an ample supply of flu vaccine in the land, and as Yann Martel once put it, our experiment in becoming one of the world's great multicultural hotels continues to be working. There are worse fates, no doubt, than evolving into a confederation of shopping centres next door to Holiday Inns.

That Canada might be sleep-walking toward disaster, that the will of the Canadian people as expressed in the 1992 referendum is being systematically and deliberately undermined by our politicians, that an old dream of a country that once aspired to contribute to human freedom is slipping away -- all of this is dismissed as yesterday's jitters, not to be taken seriously. Let's get on with choosing the Greatest Canadian. Let's snigger about the Americans. Let's have another chocolate. Belgian are the best. The taste makes you want to whimper. Just one of many pleasant soporifics in the declining Canada embraced by Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.