The last three major attempts to accommodate Quebec’s unique linguistic and cultural characteristics within Canada’s Constitution all inflamed the province’s separatist movement. But over two decades have passed since the last attempt, and the separatists were crushed in the most recent federal and provincial elections. New Premier Phillipe Couillard is a strong federalist, and his early moves on fiscal and economic policy are compatible with the centre-right Conservative government in Ottawa. Under the circumstances it seems possible, at least, to imagine another attempt at constitutional rapprochement between Canada and Quebec. C2C’s Mathieu Dumont took the idea to Maxime Bernier, the popular Conservative MP for the Beauce and Minister of State for Small Business, Tourism, and Agriculture. Bernier, a long-shot contender for the federal Conservative leadership when Prime Minister Harper eventually leaves, is refreshingly outspoken about many things related to the Constitution, including Senate reform, equalization, and the division of powers. But like the current PM, he is very wary of constitutional reform, for now.
Do you think the time is right for constitutional reform, and under what circumstances would it be right?
First of all, as I said in a speech in Toronto at the Albany Club, we don’t have to reform or re-open the Constitution. We just have to respect it. I think we have a great Constitution; we just have to respect the division of powers between the two orders of government, and by this I mean not interfering in provincial jurisdiction. We Conservatives respect the Constitution, but if we look at the Liberals, Justin Trudeau said in a speech in Montreal that he wants to interfere in provincial jurisdiction, in education. This is one of his priorities for the next election. What I’ve been saying for a long time is that we mustn’t interfere, and this way every government will be happy, specifically the Quebec government. If you interfere in provincial jurisdiction you won’t help the federalist cause.
Regarding the division of powers do you think reform is necessary?
I think (a decentralized federal government) was the intent of the fathers of the Constitution. All local matters must be under provincial jurisdiction, national matters under the federal government. That’s what it is in the Constitution right now. It’s why if you look at healthcare, which is an issue directly affecting people on the local level, the hospitals are under provincial jurisdiction. If you look at Foreign Affairs it’s national. If you look at all the powers the federal government has right now it’s under this logic: Everything that is national must be with the federal government and everything that is local in nature and directly in line with citizens should be in the hands of the local government. We must follow and respect that. So to answer the question, we don’t need to reform; we only need to respect the Constitution.
How can QC be reconciled with the Constitution; would enshrining the “Quebecois Nation” motion help?
The nation of Quebec and the resolution that we passed in the House was very important for Quebecers. I’m very proud of my government that did it under the leadership of Prime Minister Harper. We don’t have to do anything else to be reconciled with Quebec. Quebec is a part of the Constitution and if you look at the last election in QC, the Quebecers are not concerned with the Constitution. They are concerned with the economy. They don’t want to have constitutional debates; the debates are no longer there. They know that we as a party, and as a government in Canada, we respect them and recognize them as a nation, and we respect the Constitution. The Quebecers don’t want to have constitutional debates, they are happy with the open federalism that was offered to them.
Regarding the past election and the economy: Having Premier Couillard in QC, and with the setbacks of separatism, do you think this paves the way to more market-oriented economic policy in QC?
I wish. I wish because I’m a free-market guy. I believe in freedom, I don’t believe in big government. I don’t believe the government must solve all problems, I think people can often solve problems on their own. We need a small government, not a big one that will interfere everywhere. I hope that Prime Minister Couillard will be more market oriented. I was optimistic with the campaign they did; they said they would focus on the economy and they would do a review of all the programs on the provincial level. That’s great, and I hope they will keep their promise. Right now in Quebec we have a federalist party who believes more in free-market than the former government.
What are your thoughts on interprovincial free-trade, do you think it is time to lift some barriers?
I think it is, and I’m very happy with what my colleague James Moore is doing right now. He’s consulting with his counterparts, and the Quebec government is willing to have discussions. This is good news. We’re signing a lot of free-trade agreements with Europe, with South Korea, with Columbia … lots of countries, but we must have real free-trade for goods, for people, here in Canada. I think it’s time to look at the issue without touching the Constitution. We simply have to look at this with the provinces and I hope the discussions will be successful.
In regards to Quebec, do you think there should be any changes made to equalization?
No, we don’t have to touch equalization. The principle is in the Constitution. The way we calculate equalization can be changed by any government through consultations with the provinces. It’s up to the federal government. In 2007, the late Jim Flaherty made consultations with his counterparts concerning the equalization formula. We made some changes and improved it at that time. I think it’s going well right now, so I don’t see the necessity to change the formula. The principle is in the Constitution, and by respecting it we can properly respect the needs of the provinces.
Do you have a comment on aboriginal rights and section 35? Should it be amended?
I didn’t say the Constitution is perfect. If we don’t like the way politicians in Ottawa exercise federalism, and their power, we don’t need to change the Constitution we just have to make sure we have political parties in Ottawa who respect it. So I think that we can have some change in programs, but as I said in the beginning you will have a good choice in the next election about all of this. You will have the NDP that are a centralizing party wanting all the programs without looking at the division of powers; you’ll have the Liberals saying education is important so they’ll have a program on that when it’s under provincial jurisdiction, and you’ll have us who respect the Constitution.
On the subject of Senate Reform, how should it be dealt with further?
We want to respect the Constitution; if we’re not sure what we can do on an issue we’ll ask the Supreme Court. So we did it, we asked the Supreme Court and in the end the court told us that if we want to change things we have to go through a process we’re not interested in because we don’t want to re-open the constitutional debate. For the Senate it will be the status quo for us… We’ve dealt with it. The court gave us the process we must follow, and as a government needing the approval of all the provinces we decided not to go ahead with it. We want to concentrate our resources on the economy, not on having a constitutional debate. I think that with what the senate is doing right now, they will be more open to Canadians; they have new procedures in the way they currently operate. You already see a change as opposed to what was happening a year ago. They are more accountable. We tried to reform, we know how to do it, we decided not to do it, and I’m happy with that. Now the Senate is looking at different ways to improve their processes and that’s good news.
Do you think the Charter has given too much power to the courts to make public policy at the expense of elected legislators?
I’m a legislator, I respect the court. I’m also a lawyer, and I respect the court. In the end it’s always the elected people who have the power. I’m not afraid of what the court can do; you can always change the law. I am elected to pass legislation, bills, so if the court has an interpretation that we as a government don’t like we can change the legislation. In the end the power is still in the hands of the elected people. Charter or not, I see my role as a legislator and I can see the role of the Supreme Court. If we’re not happy with a decision and think it is not a good one, as politicians we always have the power to change legislation and do what we think is good for the people. That’s the most important aspect to me. It’s a good thing to have a Charter of Rights in the Constitution, but the elected people in the country must keep their power, and we hold the same power as we did before.
In your opinion what are the main flaws in the 1982 Constitution?
I’m not concerned about that. The Constitution is there, and we have to deal with it. Nothing is perfect, in the U.S. you always have some debate about the Constitution and we have this in Canada as well. For me there are no main flaws in the Constitution.
Do you have a comment on property rights or how they could be enshrined in the Constitution?
I know that some of my colleagues and MPs from my party want to have something in the Constitution about this. Property rights are important, but most important is what a government is doing with the people’s money. So if you have a smaller government who doesn’t interfere in private matters you won’t have any problems with property rights. If we have a big government that taxes people and interferes everywhere you’ll have a problem; they’ll create a program that interferes with private rights like property rights. I’m in politics to speak for more freedom and less government, for less interference with the private market and the respect of people’s freedom. It’s a philosophical debate that we can have; do we need to have property rights in the Constitution? I don’t think so. We just need a smaller government that will give more freedom to people and won’t interfere in private matters. When you have something about property rights come up, it’s because the government is doing something. So we just have to elect the right people that will respect the Constitution, and believe in free markets and freedom.
Would the Conservative Party of Canada be interested in changing the amending formula in the future?
No. It’s not in the agenda of the government of Canada. Before doing something of the sort you must have a debate. A debate first in your own party, and I haven’t seen any resolution on this subject coming from our party at the last convention. It’s a process, you have your people, your congress, your resolutions who are or are not adopted, the question of whether you are in government or not, and what to do with the resolutions if you are. Our agenda is the economy and not the Constitution.
Mathieu Paul Dumont is a student of Political Science and Philosophy. He has been involved with online media since 2012 as a writer and editor. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the Prince Arthur Herald and a Junior Research Fellow with the NATO Council of Canada.