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Can the Canadians Be a Sovereign People?*

  • Peter H. Russell (a1)


No country had been engaged in macro-constitutional politics so intensively for so long as Canada. Macro-constitutional politics, unlike ordinary constitutional politics are about the very nature of the political community on which the constitution is to be based. When constitutional politics is at the macro level, the constitutional question tends to dwarf all other issues. Except for a few short intervals Canada has been engaged in constitutional politics since the mid-1960s. Through this experience and most recently. Canadians have adopted a new constitutionalism requiring popular participation in constitution-making. Thus, as Canadians enter the fifth, and what they hope will be, the final round of macro-constitutional politics, they will find out whether they share enough in common to constitute themselves a single sovereign people.

Aucun pays ne s'est engagé dans un débat macro-constitutionnel aussi intensivement et depuis aussi longtemps que le Canada. Le débat macro-constitutionnel se différencíe des débats constitutionnels ordínaíres en ce qu'il concerne la nature profonde de la communauté politique sur laquelle la constitution est fondée. Quand le débat constitutionnel se maintient au seuil macro, il tend a à supplanter tous les autres enjeux. Le Canada poursuit son d´bat constitutionnel depuis le milieu des années soixante à l'exception de courts intervalles. Récemment, forts de cette expérience, les Canadiens ont adopté un nouveau constitutionnalisme requérant la participation populaire au processus de réforme constitutionnelle. Ainsi, alors que les Canadiens entrent dans la cinquième et—ils l'espèrent—dernière ronde macro-constitutionnelle, ils découvriront s'ils ont assez en commun pour constituer un seul peuple souverain.



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1 Quoted in Skelton, O. D., The Life and Times of Sir Alexander Tilloch Gall (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1966), 96.

2 Letter from Premier Clyde Wells to J. W. Pickersgill and R. L. Stanfield. January 15. 1990, 5. Emphasis in the original.

3 The Fathers of Confederation did not speak for aboriginal inhabitants of the lands over which the British claimed sovereignty.

4 Cairns, Alan C., “Citizens (Outsiders) and Governments (Insiders) in Constitution-Making: The Case of Meech Lake,” Canadian Public Policy 14 (1988), S121.

5 On the interaction of competing claims to sovereignty see Vipond, Robert, Liberty and Community: Canadian Federalism and the Failure of the Constitution (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

6 Locke, John, The Second Treatise of Government (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1952).

7 For an analysis of the different aspects of sovereignty, see Rees, W. J., “The Theory of Sovereignty Restated,” in Laslett, Peter, ed., Philosophy, Politics and Society (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956), 56.

8 Morgan, Edmund S., Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 169.

9 There are many accounts. Fora more recent one, see Morris, Richard B., Forging the Union, 1781–1789 (New York: Harper & Row, 1987).

10 For the political theory of the French-Canadian rebels, see Monière, Denis, Ideologies in Quebec: The Historical Development, trans, by Howard, Richard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981), chap. 3. For the constitutional ideas of the Upper Canadian rebels see Kennedy, W. P. M., The Constitution of Canada, 1534–1937 (2nd ed.; London: Oxford University Press, 1937), chap. 11.

11 Creighton, Donald, The Road to Confederation (Toronto: Macmillan. 1964). 381.

12 These were the words Macdonald used in the Confederation Debates. Waite, P. B., ed., The Confederation Debates in the Province of Canada (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963). 156.

13 Whitaker, Reg, “Democracy and the Canadian Constitution,” in Banting, Keith and Simeon, Richard, eds., And No One Cheered (Toronto: Methuen, 1983), 240260.

14 Vipond. Liberty and Community.

15 Ibid., 235.

16 See Sabetti, Fillipo, “The Historical Context of Constitutional Change in Canada,” Law and Contemporary Problems 45 (1982), 11.

17 Dawson, R. M., The Government of Canada (4th ed.; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), 63.

18 Sovereign at least in a legal sense, but also, to the extent that the amending system is based on a genuine social consensus, sovereign in a moral sense.

19 For a discussion of the various proposals, see Gerin-Lajoie, Paul, Constitutional Amendment in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950).

20 Even as liberally-minded a Canadian as Frank Underhill poured cold water on such suggestions. (Ibid, 234.)

21 For an account of these events, see Neary, Peter, Newfoundland in the North Atlantic World, 1929–1949 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988), chap. 10.

22 For a brief but perceptive account, see Smiley, Donald V., Canada in Question: Federalism in the Eighties (3rd ed.; Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1980), chap. 3.

23 McWhinney, Edward, Quebec and the Constitution, 1960–1978 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979).

24 To the best of my knowledge these terms are not used elsewhere in the literature. My distinction draws from Elazar, Daniel J., “Constitution-making: The Pre-eminently Political Act,” in Banting, Keith G. and Simeon, Richard, eds., Redesigning the State: The Process of Constitutional Change in Industrial Nations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985). Elazar distinguishes constitutional politics which addresses “the existence of the body politic itself” from constitutional politics which may result in comprehensive re-writing of the constitution without addressing the fundamental nature of the political community itself.

25 For a recent account, see Clarkson, Stephen and McCall, Christina, Trudeau and Our Times (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990).

26 See “Federalism. Nationalism and Reason,” the final essay in Trudeau, Pierre Elliott, Federalism and the French Canadians (Toronto: Macmillan, 1968).

27 For an analysis of the parallel between religious and nationalist conflict, see Knopff, Rainer. “Quebec's ‘Holy War’ as ‘Regime’ Politics,” this Journal 12(1979), 315331. For an account of the English-Canadian nationalism based on Trudeau's constitutionalism, see McRoberts, Kenneth, “English Canada and Quebec: Avoiding the Issue,” Sixth Annual Robarts Lecture, York University, Toronto, March 5, 1991.

28 Simeon, Richard, Federal-Provincial Diplomacy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972).

29 Smiley, Canada in Question, 74–79.

30 The Special Joint Committee of the Senate and of the House of Commons on the Constitution of Canada (Molgat-MacGuigan Committee), Final Report (Ottawa: Information Canada, 1972). Chapter 7 on “Self-Determination” does not base this right on provinces but on contiguous, homogeneous communities.

31 For accounts of constitutional politics in the 1970s, see Smiley, Canada in Question, 79–88; Cairns, Alan C., “The Politics of Constitutional Renewal in Canada,” in Banting, and Simeon, , eds., Redesigning the State; Stein, Michael B., Canadian Constitutional Renewal, 1968–1981 (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations. 1989).

32 Calder v. A.G. B.C., (1973)34 D.L.R. (3rd) 145. For the implications of this case for Canadian constitutional politics, see Asch, Michael, Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Rights and the Canadian Constitution (Toronto: Methuen. 1984).

33 For a detailed account see Romanow, Roy. Whyte, John and Leeson, Howard. Canada … Notwithstanding (Toronto: Carswell/Methuen, 1984).

34 The Right Honourable Trudeau, Pierre Elliott. Prime Minister. A Time for Action (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 1978).

35 See the Task Force on Canadian Unity, A Future Together, Observations and Recoinmendations (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1979).

36 Dufour, Christian, A Canadian Challenge (Halifax: The Institute for Research on Public Policy, 1990), 85.

37 There are many accounts of the referendum. For a very balanced account, see McRoberts, Kenneth, Quebec: Social Change and Political Crisis (3rd ed.; Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1988), chap. 9.

38 For a detailed account of this period of constitutional politics, see Zukowsky, Ronald J., Struggle Over the Constitution: From the Quebec Referendum to the Supreme Court (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 1981).

39 Cairns, “Citizens (Outsiders) and Governments (Insiders) in Constitution-Making.”

40 Russell, Peter H. et al. , The Court and the Constitution: Comments on the Supreme Court Reference on Constitutional Amendment (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 1982).

41 See Milne, David. The New Canadian Constitution (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1982).

42 Re: Objection to a Resolution to Amend the Constitution, [1982] 2 S.C.R. 793.

43 Dufour, A Canadian Challenge.

44 Trudeau used this phrase in his May 1987 newspaper article attacking the Meech Lake Accord. See Cohen, Andrew, A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1990), 165.

45 Constitution Act. 1982. section 37.

46 See Hawkes, David C., Aboriginal Peoples and Constitutional Reform: What Have We Learned? (Kingston: Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, 1989).

47 Milne, David, The Canadian Constitution: From Palliation to Meech Lake (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1989).

48 Cohen, A Deal Undone, and Monahan, Patrick, Meech Lake: The Inside Story (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

49 Quebec was the only province to hold hearings on the Accord between the agreement in principle at Meech Lake on April 30, 1987, and agreement on the final text at the Langevin Block in Ottawa on June 3, 1987.

50 In the Speech from the Throne on May 13, 1991, the federal government has made parliamentary reform a major element in its approach to constitutional reform (Canada, House of Commons Debates, May 13, 1991, 5).

51 Globe and Mail, June II, 1990.

52 Already a number of books have been published on the post-Meech round. They include: Fournier, Pierre, A Meech Lake Post-Mortem, trans, by Fischman, Sheila (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991); Resnick, Philip, Toward a Canada-Quebec Union (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991); Smith, David, McKinnon, Peter and Courtney, John, eds., After Meech Luke: Lesson for the Future (Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1991); Watts, Ronald L. and Brown, Douglas, eds., Options for a New Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991); and Young, Robert, ed., Confederation in Crisis (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1991).

53 Quebec and British Columbia are both committed to including referenda as part of the constitutional process. For Quebec, see Report of the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec (Belanger/Campeau Commission) (Quebec: Secrétariat de la Commission, 1991). For British Columbia, see Smith, Melvin H., A British Columbia Perspective (Victoria: Queen's Printer for British Columbia, 1991). In the Speech from the Throne, May 13, 1991, the federal government announced its intention to introduce “enabling legislation to provide for the greater participation of Canadian men and women in constitutional change” (Debates, 3).

54 See, in particular, A Quebec Free to Choose: Report of the Constitutional Committee of the Quebec Liberal Party (Allaire Report) (Montreal: Quebec Liberal Party, 1991).

55 Friedrich, Carl J., Trends of Federalism in Theory and Practice (New York: Praeger, 1968), 39.

56 The frustrating nature of constitutional politics is further elaborated in Russell, Peter H., “The Politics of Frustration: The Pursuit of Formal Constitutional Change in Australia and Canada,” in Hodgins, Bruce W., Eddy, John, Shelagh, S.J.Grant, D. and Struthers, James, eds., Federalism in Canada and Australia: Historical Perspectives (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1989).

* Presidential address to the Canadian Political Science Association, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, June 1991.

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Can the Canadians Be a Sovereign People?*

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