Constitutional amendment is always difficult and sometimes essential
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 10 July 2006

Anyone who still doubts that Canadians will soon be going back to the Constitution should consider a column by Robert Sibley in this morning’s Ottawa Citizen (“Why those charting Canada's future cannot forget the past”).

Sibley notices that everyone, from scholars to the Prime Minister, is being drawn reluctantly back to the Constitution “like lemmings to the cliff.”

The problem is that while we may not relish the subject, we have unfinished constitutional business going back fifty years which cannot be ignored.

Nobody enjoys surgery either, but sometimes you need it.

This will be Round Three.

Round One was the Trudeau era between 1968 and 1982. It resulted in (a) the patriation of our Constitution from Britain, (b) a formula to amend it, if necessary against the wishes of Quebec, and (c) the constitutional entrenchment of Equalization transfers to weaker provinces.

Round Two was the Meech-Charlottetown era of Brian Mulroney. This sought to accommodate Quebec’s historic claim to a constitutional veto, the West’s desire for a reformed Senate, and expansion of various minority entitlements.

It ended in public rejection of the Meech-Charlottetown amendments in a national referendum in 1992, followed by a 1995 secession vote in Quebec which came within 1% (54,288 votes) of winning.

Since 1995 Ottawa has made all kinds of policy concessions to Quebec, but governments have steered clear of constitutional amendments.

Yet amend it we must, for we have built into it an impossible contradiction.

The original 1867 division of powers (still supposedly in force) leaves provinces “exclusively” in charge of health, education, welfare and economic development.

But Trudeau’s 1982 addendum says that Ottawa is responsible for ensuring that provinces have equal revenues to pay for them.

Add to this the “spending power” doctrine of the 1960s which says (because nothing in the Constitution explicitly bans it) that Ottawa can tax and spend for provincial responsibilities, and put federal conditions on how provinces spend it.

So which is it? Ottawa and the provinces can’t both be responsible for X, Y and Z.

Our confusion has led, predictably, to serious over-spending, weakening of political accountability, over-taxation, regional jealousy, and political opportunism.

Although Round Three promises to be ugly, I believe it has a better chance of success than the last one.

First and foremost, the government of Ontario -- for the first time -- is more worried about its own economic future than about Quebec separatism. The appeal of “fiscal equality” is fading fast in Canada’s biggest province.

Second, we have a Prime Minister who (unlike any of his predecessors) actually believes more in the division of powers and responsibilities than in “equality.” He wants Ottawa to focus on federal matters like defence, immigration and criminal law.

Third, new currents are emerging in Quebec from the likes of Lucien Bouchard that Quebec must start looking to global markets and less to governments for its cultural survival. There are similar thoughts percolating through the Atlantic.

The simple reality is that Canada was not intended to be a “social union.” It was established as an economic union, and (when necessary) a defensive union.

Our attempt over the past half-century to create a social union through things like national medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and Equalization are all failing.

The sooner we confront and deal with this impossibility, the sooner we can close the Constitution and move on.

- 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.