Ottawa Vs. Quebec: A Diplomatic Confrontation

Posted on Thursday, September 22 at 14:09 by jensonj
Quebec is already and by far the most active Canadian province on the international scene with a significant network of offices, big and small -- 28 in all -- a small army of quasi diplomats, a ministry and minister dedicated to the subject and even an office for foreign aid which gives out money to various home-based organizations to spend abroad. No other province has felt the need or dared go that far. While others look at their foreign presence as mostly an extension of their tourism and trade strategy, Quebec sees the international arena as an essential playground for its overall development, emancipation and survival as a small francophone nation. Not only does Quebec City also have a minister and a full department dedicated to international relations with a $100 million budget and a staff of 400 which represents only a portion of its overall financial effort aimed at foreign affairs, but the National Assembly voted on Bill 52 a few years ago, giving itself the authority to debate, approve (albeit after the fact) treaties and accords signed by Canada, if they concern an area of provincial jurisdiction. The Quebec parliament is powerless to amend those treaties, however, but at least, it gets to spend a few hours talking about them. Federal MPs, contrary to what we might think, do not get such a say. Elsewhere in Canada, international relations are lumped in with federal, provincial and interprovincial affairs. In Ontario, for example, international affairs still rank only an executive director within intergovernmental affairs, not even a deputy minister, let alone a minister and a once active network of foreign representations has all but disappeared. The Gérin-Lajoie Doctrine Forty years ago, not long after Jean Lesage's liberal team arrived in power and the Quiet Revolution started, a minister of the new government, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, decided that he would no longer allow federal representatives to act on behalf of Quebec in areas where the province was sovereign under the constitution. Furthermore, he concluded, since there was nothing in the British North America Act that expressly gave the central power all the authority on the international scene, Ottawa's overstretched and self-serving interpretation of its own constitutional powers regarding treaties and borders needed to be reigned in. There existed more than a gray zone -- there was no zone, he concluded -- and to him that meant Quebec could demand and should receive the right to not only attend, but also participate in meetings concerning issues falling clearly in its jurisdiction, as well as others closely related. After all, wrote Mr. Gérin-Lajoie, the Privy Council in London, in the matter of Hodge versus the Queen of 1883, had clearly affirmed exclusive provincial competence in areas such as education, language, culture, health, and municipal affairs. International discussions on those issues simply could not be left up to the federal government to handle alone. Some Progress, But Not Enough What has become known as the Gérin-Lajoie Doctrine has guided Quebec's strategy with regards to foreign affairs ever since. Forty years later and despite well over 500 international accords signed with foreign countries, ranging from France and the U.S. to Burkina Faso and Morocco, the same battle is still being fought, however. If Ottawa has shown some overture to the demands of Quebec and of other provinces to let them play a greater role within various Canadian delegations, its overall position has not changed very much since 1965. If there is a gray zone in the constitution, the colour is in the eye of provincial beholders. To the federal government, all international matters belong on this side of the Ottawa River, and whenever some flexibility is shown to the provinces, it is still more a matter of generosity than actual policy, and it is done on a case by case approach and on an ad hoc basis. Times Have Changed In Quebec City the attitude that says "foreign affairs belong to us," often repeated by the various federal administrations, will no longer do, the government has determined. It is dépassé and inconsistent with a federal regime that sees one government charged with the responsibility of negotiating treaties and the other level of government empowered but not forced to execute them on their territories. The Charest government unveiled last week a detailed plan for international action and is about to introduce for debate in the National Assembly a new international relations policy paper, the first since 1991. Quebec wants to go farther than it ever has. The list of international bodies it wants to belong to is exhaustive as is the number of countries it will entertain special relations with. It's almost a geopolitical approach. A demonstration of that new attitude came a few weeks ago when Jean Charest paid what was an unofficial three-day state visit to Haiti. Strangely enough, Ottawa does not seem to mind, at the moment, the greater role being played by Quebec, including the proposal to hold a large conference in Montreal with the active participation of influential governors like George Pataki of New York and Jeb Bush of Florida.

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