Twenty years ago this June, the Québec government under Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa adopted legislation stipulating that all outdoor commercial signage should be in French, but lifted the ban on the presence of English and other languages. The media often refers to this as the return of bilingual signs since the 1981 Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) made French the only language allowed in outdoor commercial advertising. While the issue was highly divisive throughout the 1980s and lead to court challenges, the decision in June 1993 by the ruling Liberals was significant enough to make international news. It has since withstood the test of time (in the interests of full disclosure, I was chief of staff to Premier Bourassa from 1989-94).
To better comprehend the significance and magnitude of this language chapter, it is useful to go back in history. The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent times in Québec as the Québec independence movement gained ground and became a legitimate and important component in consideringQuébec’s options for a future in or out of a federal Canada. Closely associated with the debate on Québec independence was the conviction within nationalist circles that the use of the French language (concentrated in Québec and spoken by over 80 percent of Quebeckers) was in danger, and that legislative measures were needed to protect and defend French in various walks of life—education, public administration, language in the workplace, and outdoor commercial signs.
When a Liberal (federalist party) government decided to make French the only official language of Québec in 1974, the hope was that it would calm fears about the future of French. The independentist Parti Québécois, however, came into power in 1976 promising to bring forward comprehensive language legislation. Bill 101, or the Charter of the French language, was enacted in 1977.
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper was conducting a Latin American tour last week, a firestorm was in full force concerning questionable expenses of prominent Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin. Before Harper actually left for Latin America, his respected chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had already resigned from his post after making the decision to give Senator Duffy $90,000 to pay a portion of his debt to the Canadian public.
Meanwhile, the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) called for the outright abolition of the Senate—an appointed upper chamber of the Canadian Parliament. This has been the traditional position of the NDP for years. Prime Minister Harper has long been a strong proponent of major senate reform both during his opposition years and now. His approach revolves around the concept of a “Triple E Senate”—elected, equal and effective. The third Canadian parliamentary party, the Liberal party, having benefited for many years from dominating the Senate, has been far more ambiguous about its vision. Currently, legal issues regarding senate reform have been referred to the Canadian Supreme Court for a ruling.
The original intent of the Senate was to provide “sober second thought” on legislation emanating from the lower House—the House of Commons. In addition, the Senate was meant to play a role in defending provincial responsibilities and interests. The Federal Cabinet nominates senators. Over the years, the Senate has comprised a mix of party officials being rewarded for past services and prominent citizens called to another form of civic engagement.
To most Canadians, the Senate is not a major force or concern regarding how the nation conducts its business. So, abolition? Reform? Perhaps we need to start with the question: Is it still a legitimate body in today’s modern parliamentary system?
With a full-blown scandal over the expenses of some senators engulfing the Canadian Senate, an ongoing inquiry into corruption in Québec’s construction industry, and the daily whirl of allegations from the Republican leadership toward the Obama administration on Benghazi, the IRS, and Associated Press reporters, it is not surprising that young people may be questioning themselves these days about the value of civic and political engagement.
Rarely a day passes without a media story about a scandal, unearthed by the diligent work of an investigative reporter, reaching the mainstream networks. It is no small wonder that cynicism and skepticism are growing about the workings of the body politic or civil society, and whether getting involved and making a difference is still as relevant in today’s world as it was in more recent times.
The temptation to sit on the sidelines and criticize from afar those who are betraying the public trust is becoming more comfortable than joining the fray, fighting for one’s beliefs or a noble cause, and trying to bring about change to a social or political condition. Some actually believe that today’s younger generation—closely wedded to technological innovation—will be more susceptible to growing doubts about the value of civic engagement.
While the current setting in many Western democracies may lead some to pessimism and disengagement, I remain an optimist about the future and why it is more important than ever to get involved.
It’s been said that Canada has usually “punched above its weight” on the international stage. Whether we refer to the world wars of the twentieth century, the creation of the United Nations, the bipolar era of the Cold War, the conflict in Korea, or the reaction to Afghanistan after 9-11, Canada’s contribution in blood, sweat and tears is well documented. In addition, we have constantly played a role in peacekeeping and economic liberalization that is a model to the developed world.
Our close alliance with our neighbor to the south, the United States, has usually kept us in the loop on the major currents in world politics. However, the recent announcement by Foreign Minister John Baird that Canada would not seek a seat at the UN Security Council was met with criticism from many long term adherents of Canada’s traditional foreign policy and with derision by the growing chorus of critics who oppose the values associated with the Harper government’s foreign policy and its ideological stance on international cooperation. Rightly or wrongly, it was interpreted as one more step toward Canada’s declining reputation in foreign policy matters.
Withdrawing from Kyoto, opposing international NGOs that provide abortion services, actively supporting Israel’s right wing coalition government and its approach to the Palestinian issue, and withdrawing from some UN projects have led proponents of traditional Canadian foreign policy to question whether Canada’s international reputation is now so damaged that Baird’s announcement was more an admission of certain defeat for the Security Council seat rather than a point of principle. Some veteran observers of UN politics interpreted Canada’s defeat two years ago for that very seat as a vote against this new orientation under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.
To be fair, the world today is far different from the glory days of Lester B. Pearson and his Nobel Peace Prize in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Under Pearson’s influence and that of his successors, Canada’s international profile was built on multilateral cooperation, active engagement and above all, a strong diplomatic corps. However, events today are less predictable and ideologies less certain. We no longer live in the more predictable bipolar world of the Cold War.
As the Harper majority government ends its second year in office, the Liberal party, with its third party status, has just chosen a new leader. Normally, the choice made by the third party in the House of Commons would barely make waves. However, the overwhelming victory of Justin Trudeau—the son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—at the end of a six-month campaign has already begun to change the political landscape in Canada.
Public opinion polls preceding and following Trudeau’s selection have demonstrated that the 41-year-old Trudeau is beginning to have an impact on how Canadians see their current government, what they are looking for in a prime minister and how important the theme of real change could be in the next election. Just prior to choosing Trudeau as leader, Liberals had either narrowed the gap in public approval with the governing Conservative party and the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), or taken the lead. A poll recently published in the National Post showed Trudeau actually widening his lead in approval ratings.
With the elections more than two years away, these polls should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is clear that the Liberals have gained a new energy that makes them, once again, a potential major player in the next electoral cycle. How Trudeau fares in the coming weeks could very well determine the outcome of the 2015 election. If he loses traction, he may quickly become a passing fad. Should he display aplomb and growth in his new role, he could become the prime minister-in-waiting.
It is often stated as conventional wisdom that the United States is a right-of-center country and Canada, with its state-supported healthcare system and greater state-run operations, is left-of-center. In real life, it is far more complex—as we saw when U.S. President Barack Obama handily won reelection last November while the right-wing Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has won the last three general elections in Canada.
Occasionally, a book surfaces about a new political paradigm, leading many to question existing conventional wisdom. One such book has just hit the newsstands in Canada. It is called The Big Shift, co-authored by the CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, Darrell Bricker, and the respected Globe and Mail newspaper columnist John Ibbitson. I happen to personally know both authors and can attest to their impeccable professional credentials. Their book covers new ground, challenges existing conventions and offers a highly provocative treatise about the new politics in Canada.
The book’s basic thesis deals with an emerging new coalition of voters—anchored in resource-rich western Canada and in suburban Toronto—who share more conservative values and views about the role of government, the economy and law and order. Using recent census data, they point to a fluid demography where many new immigrants are arriving in Ontario and western Canada from East Asia and South Asia. Ibbitson and Bricker speak of an immigration inflow that is equivalent to the size of Canada’s largest city, Toronto, every ten years. The result is a new, more Pacific-oriented Canada that is more polarized along the conservative-progressive divide than ever in its recent history.
With March 20, 2013 representing the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, historians and journalists in both Canada and the United States have been assessing the wisdom of this historic decision. The Iraq War, due to its enormous costs in human, financial and material terms, has long fallen out of favor with the American people and the political class. Even the Republican Party has taken some distance from the major architects of the war—former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Neither has addressed a Republican National Convention since 2004.
In Canada last week, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien made all the media rounds and was strongly commended for refusing to go along with the so-called “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003 after the UN Security Council refused to sanction the U.S.-led invasion. It was the first time that Canada said “no” to a U.S. president about to enter a war. It was a defining moment because Canada was a faithful U.S. ally in World War II, in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, the 1950-53 Korean War, and throughout the Cold War. Moreover, Canada was very supportive of the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.
The decision to go to war in Iraq was never popular in Canada, despite the initial support of the opposition Conservative party leader, Stephen Harper. The case for weapons of mass destruction and the links between Iraq’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, and Al Qaeda were never convincing to the general population. The Canadian government of the day, led by Prime Minister Chrétien, had large-scale support for saying “no,” and this support was especially vocal in Chrétien’s home province of Québec. Even Conservative leader and current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper later recanted, saying the war was a mistake.
As Cardinals gather for the conclave in Rome to choose the next Pope, there is growing speculation about Marc Ouellet, a potential Canadian candidate from Québec. The former Archbishop of Québec and current papal legate to Latin America is seen as a serious contender to replace Pope Benedict XVI. A conservative intellectual from the Québec village of La Motte, who spent 11 years in Colombia, he is considered a potential compromise choice between the traditional European contingency of front-runners and possible candidates from the Southern Hemisphere.
Cardinal Ouellet, often described as a favorite of Rome and the departing Pope, is known for his outspoken views and has over the years developed a number of detractors in his own home province of Québec. Undoubtedly a brilliant and respected scholar, his outspoken conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage have made him a target of harsh criticism from politicians and media in Québec. Once a bastion of the Catholic hierarchy and influence, Québec has become increasingly secularized and can now be characterized as Canada’s most socially liberal province. When Ouellet condemned abortion even in the case of rape, the negative reaction was swift and virulent.
This being said, it will not be the population of Québec or liberal columnists who will select the next Pope. Ouellet and other conservative Cardinals will be facing a far greater opponent in the days ahead—the thirst and desire for change among Catholics. If the Cardinals gathered in Rome reflect the mood of Catholics around the world, the next Pope will have to be a change agent.
There are over 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and while the growth of the Church may be in decline in the Northern Hemisphere, it is expanding in Africa and Latin America. This trend has led to some speculation this time around that a Pope could come from the Southern Hemisphere. But change is needed and desired there as well.
OTTAWA- Jim Flaherty, Canada’s finance minister, stunned Canadians when he revealed in an interview about a month ago that he had a serious skin condition but that he was still up to his high-powered job.
For months, the minister had tip-toed around questions about his health. But his changing appearance gave it away. His face was puffy and red, he looked very tired, and wasn’t his pleasant self. At times, he appeared flustered at news conferences and during the daily Question Period in the House of Commons.
As it turned out, Flaherty is suffering from a “non-life threatening but serious” skin condition called Bullous Pemphigoid, his office eventually released in a statement. He was prescribed prednisone, a powerful steroid that causes “bloating, weight gain, redness in the face and bouts of sleeplessness,” the statement said, adding his condition “was clearing up.”
Flaherty has had this condition for nearly a year and by his own account, was very reluctant to talk about it openly. In an interview at the end of January with the The Globe and Mail, the minister said it was difficult for him to share his ailment with the public.
“I don’t like talking about this,” he admitted. “But it’s necessary because I am in public office. I don’t want people to think there’s something significantly wrong with my health that affects my ability to do my job.”
Should he have been forthcoming with his dermatological condition?
There’s no clear-cut answer to that question. In Canada, there’s no legal requirement for a minister of the Crown or for the prime minister, for that matter, to reveal the nature of his sickness. Public officials have a right to privacy when it comes to health issues. But to what degree?
With the election of a pro-sovereignty party in Québec last September, the questions about Québec’s future within the Canadian federation have once again surfaced. While there is no referendum about Québec’s future on the horizon—in part because the ruling Parti Québécois made only a vague commitment in last year’s election campaign to conduct such an exercise, and in part because the Parti Québécois forms a minority government in the National Assembly—it is appropriate to look at the workings of Canadian federalism and see how Québec has accommodated itself within the system.
It is useful to remember that all three countries in North America are federations: Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. All three federalist systems operate differently. There is not a “one size fits all” brand of federalism. In the last 50 years, all three federations have had their challenges. Regional tensions, jurisdictional battles and the aspirations of federated states like Québec have contributed to changes in how these federations operate. Of the three North American federations, Canada is the most decentralized—in fact, it is one of the most decentralized countries in the world.
Canada’s federation has a defined distribution of powers, some exclusive to each order of government—either federal or provincial—and some shared between the two. Economics, culture, immigration, and the environment are shared jurisdictions. All powers not enumerated in Canada’s federal constitution are relegated to the central government through what is called the residual clause.
Despite this more decentralized federation, disputes have periodically surfaced within Canada when central government policies affect provincial jurisdictions through federal spending power or the development of new programs. Since Canada’s creation as a federation in 1867, we have undergone periods of centralizing federal policies as well as periods of greater provincial autonomy. In Canada as in other federations, the Supreme Court has often been called to adjudicate these disputes. The federated state of Québec has been at the center of these conflicts more than any other, always arguing to protect existing powers or add new jurisdictions.