Canadian constitutional disputes are like zombies. Just when you think they are buried, they rise from the dead, looking to claim their next victim. Politicians often exhume them to boost their standing and win an election. But they had better beware: like most monsters, the undead have no loyalty, and will happily turn on those who resurrect them.
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This time, that person may be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Recently, Trudeau unearthed the fight over the provinces’ use of Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a.k.a. the notwithstanding clause. In an interview published in La Presse, Trudeau stated that the pre-emptive use of this clause by Quebec and Ontario was cause for concern. “We are trivializing the suspension of fundamental rights,” he said.
Trudeau went even further: “A reference to the Supreme Court of Canada can be made and I can tell you that our minister of justice, David Lametti, a former dean of the faculty of law at McGill University, a proud Quebecer, is thinking precisely about the avenues available to us on this.”
Cue the outrage in Quebec, where governments have routinely invoked the notwithstanding clause to charter-proof laws protecting the French language. Most recently, Premier François Legault did so with Bill 21, the Quebec secularism law, which prohibits many public servants from wearing religious symbols at work, and Bill 96, which limits the use of English in the public service and caps the number of students allowed in English colleges.
In response, Legault pulled no punches, tweeting at Trudeau that his comments were a “frontal attack” on Quebec’s democracy and people and that “Quebec will never accept such a weakening of its rights. Never!” But on Monday, the prime minister doubled down. “I’ve often said that I always deplore any attempt by provinces and territories to use the notwithstanding clause to suspend basic rights without going through the courts,” Trudeau said at a news conference in Toronto.
Why pick this fight, and why now? Why would Trudeau want to antagonize voters in the province where he is the most popular? The Liberals enjoy a massive lead over the Tories in Quebec. Last week Abacus had the Liberals at 37 per cent, the Conservatives at 17 per cent, the Bloc Québécois at 30 per cent, and the NDP at seven per cent in the province.
The answer lies with the Bloc. It has become a “parking lot” for Quebec voters unhappy with both main federalist parties, but it’s also traditionally been seen as the key to Conservative fortunes, should they manage to pry its supporters loose. The Tories have repeatedly tried to do this by courting the soft nationalist vote, with little success, winning only 10 seats and 19 per cent of the vote in the last election.
Last week, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre launched his own charm offensive in the province, but with a different strategy. In an interview with Radio-Canada, he stated that “Quebecers have the same preoccupations as other Canadians,” intimating that he will not go down the nationalist road. Rather than woo soft sovereigntist voters, he appears to be courting disaffected Liberal voters and the provincial Conservative crowd, harping on such issues as the cost of living. “What has (Trudeau) done for the economy and the environment?” he asked at a stop in Trois-Rivières. “On the economy, we have the highest inflation rate in 40 years. He doubled the national debt.”
While Trudeau may want to use the nationalist-federalist divide as a wedge issue, that will only work if the Tories play the game. So far, they’re not. And if Legault deploys his own political army against the federal Liberals in the next election, even a zombie apocalypse won’t save Trudeau’s skin.
Tasha Kheiriddin is national politics columnist for Postmedia, a principal at Navigator Ltd. and author of The Right Path.