Agreement on the Canadian Social Union as Seen by a Quebec Federalist

By Ryan, Claude | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview
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Agreement on the Canadian Social Union as Seen by a Quebec Federalist

Ryan, Claude, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


LAST FEBRUARY, NINE OF TEN premiers signed A Framework to Improve the Social Union for Canadians; Premier Bouchard was alone in refusing to sign. This agreement on managing the Canadian social union is a complex compromise. While its significance at this point is unclear, its impact may be large, and it is important to think clearly about what's at stake.

This article does two things. First, it is a lucid analysis of the agreement's various provisions. Second, it is a clear statement of what, at this point, is arguably the majority position among Quebecers on how they would like to see the Canadian federation evolve.

In an appendix, we reproduce the full text of the framework agreement.

THE AGREEMENT ON THE CANADIAN SOCIAL UNION reached in Ottawa on the 4th of February 1999 between the prime minister and the premiers of all the provinces and territories except Quebec has given rise once again to a sharp disagreement between the Quebec government, led by Lucien Bouchard, and the federal government, led by another Quebecer, Jean Chretien.

Each time a debate of this nature arises, it is important to remember that even if both leaders hold a legitimate mandate to speak and act on behalf of Quebec, the premier of Quebec and the prime minister of Canada are far from representing the full spectrum of political reality in Quebec. Between the sovereignty movement as represented by the Parti quebecois and the hard-line federalist school led by Jean Chretien, there exist in Quebec different intermediary positions. Among them, the most important is that which advocates the growth of Quebec within a renewed Canadian federation. On the Quebec political scene, this position is represented by the Quebec Liberal Party. But it also finds important echoes in larger constituencies. In certain aspects, it appeals to the many voters who support one of the federal parties. In other aspects, it also reaches out to those who are "soft nationalists."

The movement to renew federalism has had its highs and lows. On four occasions, in 1970, 1973, 1985, and 1989, it came to power under the leadership of Robert Bourassa. On four other occasions, in 1976, 1981, 1994, and 1998, it was defeated by the Parti quebecois. Despite the losses it suffered in the last two provincial elections, the movement to renew federalism remains strong in Quebec. Many polls have shown that it is still the preferred choice of a large majority of the Quebec population. Having been identified with this political movement -- first as a journalist from 1962 to 1978, then as a political actor from 1978 to 1994, and now as an independent observer free from the responsibilities and constraints of office -- I would like to explain how I reacted to the agreement reached on the 4th of February 1999.

A deplorable rupture

Before analysing the content of the agreement, I would like to express my disappointment regarding the circumstances which appear to have surrounded its signature. Having in no way participated in the discussions which preceded the agreement, I cannot offer a definitive judgment on this matter, aa well, a clear judgment is difficult because in the months before the meeting in Ottawa, the population was given little information about the nature of these discussions.

According to the version of Lucien Bouchard and his minister of intergovernmental affairs, Joseph Facal, it appears that after staying away from these discussions, the Quebec government decided -- at the annual premiers conference in Saskatoon in August 1998 -- to make common cause with the leaders of the other provinces and territories after certain essential elements were agreed to by the various parties. Among these elements was the commitment of the premiers to defend the right of a province "to opt out of any new or modified Canada-wide social program in areas of provincial/territorial jurisdiction with full compensation, provided that the province/territory carries on a program or initiative that addresses the priority areas of the Canada-wide program.

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