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Like it or not, we have to rediscover our constitution Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 25 October 2004

There is outrage these days over favoritism to Quebec. Or perhaps I should say, over even more favoritism to Quebec, Canada's perennially spoiled federal child.

Some people are sore, for instance, that Quebec was given special concessions in last month's health accord.

Now they are alarmed and offended that Canadians will be represented by the premier of Quebec, not the prime minister, in an international trade conference next month in Mexico. The prime minister of France will speak for the French, the president of Mexico for the Mexicans, and Premier Jean Charest for all Canadians. Paul Martin isn't going.

Apparently Martin finds this perfectly acceptable.

Well I don't, and neither I suspect does anyone outside Quebec.

It's not this particular trade conference that matters, but the precedent being set. It shows that to curry Liberal support in Quebec, Martin is following the Brian Mulroney strategy of treating the province as an equal partner with the federal government.

This has angered the Trudeau-Chretien centralists in Martin's own party.

"You can't give this [international trade] authority away," fumed Liberal Senator Terry Mercer. Martin's new leadership rival, Toronto MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, chimed in, "We as Canadians need to recognize who speaks for Canada. [International trade] is our domain and it should stay our domain."

Bevilacqua is right. Of necessity, international trade is a constitutional power of the national government. Provinces can always make suggestions, and trot along behind the prime minister on trade tours, but Canadian borders, tariffs and trade pacts must remain a clear jurisdiction of the national government. Point granted.

But now Bevilacqua should explain why the federal government spends so much money in areas that are constitutionally the preserve of the provinces. Medicare. Regional job creation. Education. Welfare. And why is Ottawa (once again) proposing to play a role in urban development and daycare?

Why, for example, do we see the national government enforcing a "Canada Health Act" restricting how the taxpayers in any province decide to deliver their own health care?

Invariably, federal politicians reply that "Canadians want national standards."

Maybe so, but if there were any respect in this country for constitutional restraints, national standards would have to be agreed to and enforced by the provinces, and Ottawa would stop taxing Canadians $20 billion a year for health care, leaving that tax room to provinces.

On the other hand, if we really do want the federal government running our hospitals (but before you say yes, think "gun registry"), we should amend our constitution.

Unfortunately, most politicians at this point throw up their hands and say, "We can't reopen the constitution. The public won't stand for it."

I'm not sure they're right, but if they are, we're sentencing ourselves to unconstitutional, dictatorial, irresponsible, wasteful, expensive and corrupt federal government. Which is what we have.

For just as we need ordinary laws to restrain the worst instincts of ordinary citizens, we need a constitution to restrain the worst impulses of governments.

Never trust a federal politician who appeals to "compassion" to get around the constitution. It was written for a reason, and we should learn once again to respect the limits it sets.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.

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