This past April Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault sent a joint open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
It urged the federal government to introduce stricter measures at land and air border crossings in the fight against COVID-19 — an especially favourite tune of Premier Ford’s.
A week or so later Premier Ford also confessed “I love Premier Legault.” And, whatever else, co-operation between Ontario and Quebec premiers does have a long history.
Some still alive today will remember the special relationship between former Ontario Premier Mike Harris and former Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard in the 1990s.
Only a few will remember the 1930s friendship of former Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn (“Canada’s Huey Long” — the Louisiana Governor whose motto was “Every Man a King”) and former Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis (who later made Quebec the first Canadian province to invent its own flag.)
No one at all alive today will personally remember former Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat and former Quebec Premier Honoré Mercier in the 1880s. They nonetheless managed the first meeting of Canadian provincial premiers (now an annual event) in October 1887 — hosted by Mercier in Quebec City, and chaired by Mowat.
All this history raises a few quiet questions about a mid-May 2021 letter to PM Trudeau that Premier François Legault sent all by himself. It proposes Quebec amend the Canadian constitution to clarify that Quebecers form a nation whose only official language is French.
Premier Legault’s proposal is addressed to current growing pressures on the French language in Canada’s French-majority province. But some lawyers and political scientists inside and outside Ontario have raised certain qualms.
Emmett Macfarlane, associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, has argued that the Quebec National Assembly probably cannot unilaterally amend the Canadian constitution to declare Quebec a nation and entrench its only official language as French. He believes the “courts are unlikely to permit it.”
Tom Mulcair, a Quebec lawyer by profession and former federal NDP leader (and former Quebec provincial cabinet minister), also believes that Quebec cannot unilaterally amend the Constitution Act, 1867, under the “Amendments by provincial legislatures” provision in section 45 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Mulcair seems to think as well, however, that Quebec probably can get most of what it wants if it acts in partnership with the federal government (or more exactly “the Senate and House of Commons”), under section 43 of the Constitution Act, 1982.
Mr. Mulcair believes that this constitutional walk with Ottawa is ultimately “the route Legault knows he’ll have to go, one that will require … debate and compromise.”
Meanwhile, according to a brief May 18 report from The Canadian Press, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has now spoken with reporters on the issue.
As explained by the Prime Minister, Ottawa’s “initial analysis has concluded provinces can modify the part of the Constitution that applies specifically to them.” And “Quebec can alter the Constitution to emphasize that it is a nation and that its official language is French — two things that have already been recognized by the federal government.”
It is arguable that it is in Ontario’s own particular Canada First interest in the 21st century to welcome the federal government’s initial response to Premier Legault’s Quebec nation letter.
Premier Ford’s Conservative government may also remember that Stephen Harper’s Conservative government proposed the motion “That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” in the first place.
The Canadian House of Commons voted for this motion 266 to 16, back on November 27, 2006. So almost 15 years later Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can honestly say the federal government has already recognized the Quebec nation — “within a united Canada.”
(And by proposing to amend the Canadian constitution Premier Legault has already signalled his likely ultimate agreement with any “united Canada” compromise.)
Then of course there is Premier Ford’s recent confession of love for Premier Legault.
With a June 2022 Ontario election in sight, welcoming the Prime Minister’s initial response to Premier Legault’s Quebec nation letter could have some electoral mileage for the Ford Nation as well — in a province where current federal polls show the Trudeau Liberals well ahead of everyone else.
At the same time, there may still be a significant side of the Ontario PC political base (and beyond) that finds any recognition of a unilingual French-speaking nation in Quebec altogether wrong-headed.
And that could finally prevent Premier Ford from supporting his friend Premier Legault on the Quebec nation issue (despite all its other 21st century attractions) — like Quebec supported Ontario in the April joint letter on Canada’s borders.
Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.