Quebec: A Distinct Society (?)
The concept of recognizing Quebec as a distinct society is an idea that has been kicking around for some time, but just what does it mean and what are its broader implications? This paper will examine the origins of the term, what it means, and its historical context. It will then examine rival interpretations of federalism. The essay will conclude with an in-depth examination of the concept's involvement with the failed constitutional accords and the failed Quebec succession attempts.
The term "distinct society" was a political notion used during constitutional debates during the Meech Lake accord and the Charlottetown accord. Its meaning is somewhat vague and controversial. In essence, it refers to the uniqueness of Quebec, in particular the uniqueness of Quebec's language, laws and culture. Given Quebec's language, laws and culture, it's difficult to argue that Quebec isn't a unique province within Canada, but by making a constitutional amendment to recognize Quebec as such, the dynamics of federalism would be dramatically different. Canada would become an asymmetrical Federation.
The origin of Quebec's distinct laws goes back to the conquest of 1760. Following the victory of the British, Common law was established under the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Special provisions were granted to Quebec. The Quebec Act of 1774 allowed Quebec the free exercise of the Roman Catholic religion, including the right of the Church to collect tithes; recognized the seigneurial system; and established that civil suits would be tried under French civil law and criminal cases would be tried under British common law. In Addition the act provided for an appointed legislative council that would include both French- and English-speaking members. Over time, however, tensions built up between the French and the English in the colony. The British attempted to reduce tensions by dividing Quebec into the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada through the Constitutional Act of 1791. Under the terms of the Act, Upper Canada was given freehold land tenure and common law while in Lower Canada the seigneurial system and French civil law were retained and the Catholic Church also kept its status. Collectively, the Royal Proclamation as enforced by the colony's first British governors, the Quebec Act, and the Constitutional Act of 1791 can be said to have provided, in a formal sense, for the legal recognition of the distinctive nature of Quebec.
In 1982 Pierre Elliot Trudeau had initiated the Constitution Act 1982 (otherwise known as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). The Constitution Act 1982 augmented the British North American Act 1867 and outlined the rights and freedoms of Canadians. The Constitution Act 1982 became the constitution of the land despite Quebec's rejection of the Act. The objective of Meech Lake was to incorporate Quebec into the constitution. In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney initiated an ambitious project of constitutional reform that would permit Quebec to sign the 1982 Constitution. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa agreed to sign the constitution on the condition that the constitution be modified. 5 key modifications were identified. 1-
The recognition of Quebec as a distinct Society
A commitment to Canada's bilingualism
Increased provincial powers with respect to immigration
Extension and regulation of the right for a reasonable financial compensation to any province that chooses to opt out of any future federal programs; and 5-
Provincial input in appointing senators and Supreme Court judges.
Ultimately the accord failed to capture the endorsement from 2 provincial legislatures, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Meech Lake ultimately failed. The demise of Meech Lake was welcome outside of Quebec as the rest of Canada felt it granted Quebec "too much power". The fallout led to 3 French Speaking Conservative MPs (Lucien Bouchard, Gilbert Chartrand, and...
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