It’s not hard to imagine why anglophones in Quebec are so against the idea of separation. For them, there isn’t this big conflict between being Canadian and living in Quebec. For them, Canada’s bilingual nature – imperfect as it may be in practice – includes them more than Quebec’s attitude of French-but-some-English-too-if-we-have-to.
But it’s more than just a feeling of belonging. Canada’s laws give anglophones the right to live in their own language, to educate their children in English, to deal with the government in English, to have laws written in English. Quebec is obliged to offer services to anglophones, including English school boards, whether it wants to or not. And judging by the amount it restricts access to English public schools (and how much some want to restrict it even further), anglophones could be forgiven for thinking they really don’t want to offer these services, lest they threaten the francophone majority.
I don’t remember every detail about the 1995 referendum campaign – I was 13 at the time and had more important things to worry about that fall. Besides, it’s not like I was going to vote.
I remember about that time and in the years afterward (before it became clear that the whole separation thing wouldn’t be achievable in the short term) how the leaders of the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois – the de facto leaders of the sovereignty movement – would reassure the anglophone community that we’re Quebecers too. During some provincial and federal election campaigns, some even had the gall to suggest that anglos vote for them because their common ground on social or economic issues was more important than their division over sovereignty. And I remember after every election, both those parties would proudly proclaim that every vote for them was a strong mandate for sovereignty.
Politicians being two-faced and pandering is hardly new, but it doesn’t exactly instill confidence when, for something as important as national independence, a lot really has to be based on trust in political leadership.
So it’s not surprising that, even though there were assurances that an independent Quebec would continue to respect the rights of the anglophone minority (under the unspoken assumption that all would be done to ensure they remain a minority), anglophone Quebecers didn’t really trust that a PQ government would do everything in its power to protect their interests.
I mention all this because an article came out in La Presse on Saturday that describes a draft Quebec constitution created in the summer of 1995 that would be enacted in the event of a Yes victory, one that hadn’t been made public until now. A PDF copy of that draft is linked at the bottom of the story. The constitution, which establishes Quebec as a state completely disassociated with the British monarchy, where a president appointed by the legislature would be the head of state but power would rest in the hands of the prime minister, was designed as a transition constitution that would keep everything as it is and eventually be replaced with a permanent one drawn up by an independent Quebec.
Nevertheless, a lot of thought clearly went into it, and those thoughts are described in notes that accompany each article of the constitution. In most cases, it’s the status quo, with a unicameral National Assembly making laws and the same rights and freedoms guaranteed in the existing charters of Canada and Quebec.
As far as anglophones are concerned, the constitution affords certain rights to the anglophone community in Quebec, there’s even an entire section devoted to the topic, starting at article 124 (PDF). Among them:
- The right to speak in the National Assembly in English
- The right to communicate in English during court or tribunal proceedings, and have decisions translated into either language
- The right to educate children in English, from kindergarten until university
- The right to administer their own educational institutions, presumably meaning the maintaining of linguistic school boards
- The right to receive medical and social services in English
- The right to maintain its “identity” and “institutions” (neither of these is defined very well)
That’s not to say everything would be the same. The constitution purposefully doesn’t include, for example, the right to have all laws and transcripts in English as well as French, preferring to leave that up to laws passed by the legislature. And a lot of these rights are very vague, leaving the details to legislation.
Nevertheless, it’s a pretty surprising list of rights from the perspective of a paranoid anglo. What’s more, Article 151 provides that amendments cannot be made to the articles guaranteeing these anglo rights without the consent of the anglo community (although what form that consent takes is left up to the legislature to define).
A logic major such as myself might point out that Article 151 itself could be repealed without the consent of the anglo community, clearing the way for stripping of other anglo rights, but I’m willing to give good faith the benefit of the doubt here. Like the Notwithstanding Clause, just because something is possible in theory doesn’t mean it can easily be abused in practice.
I’m not going to say I’m a convert to the cause of sovereignty. There are questions much more important than the finer points of the French language charter. And it’s hard to take seriously a draft document drawn up in secret that may or may not have been accepted by the population and may or may not have been heavily modified or completely replaced once the public had its say.
But this is perhaps a nudge toward the idea that an independent Quebec might not do everything in its power to strip anglophones of their rights, and maybe there are some deep within the sovereignty movement that believed the anglophone community (or at least the “historic” anglo community in Quebec) is as much deserving of protection as a minority within their new country as the francophone minority did in North America.
Or, you know, I could just look at the French-only-laws thing and scream racism. But I’m not paid to pick fights with Richard Martineau and Jean-François Lisée. ;)