Any suggestion that we should consider reopening Canada’s Constitution to solve our increasingly serious problems usually evokes snorts of derision and eye-rolling. The last attempts—Mulroney’s failed Meech Lake Accord in 1990, and Charlottetown in 1992—left the nation with constitutional fatigue. Those failures also left politicians understandably gun-shy of ever opening up that Pandora’s box again.
There was much high drama at the time. Would Quebec leave, would it stay? The nation bit its nails. But things did seem to settle down. Quebec didn’t separate. The country prospered through the ’90s and into the 2000s.
But things are heading south again. Rapidly. There is discontent in the air. Now, the West is increasingly unhappy with the Laurentian elite they believe is running the show. Now it is not Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Policy that is driving them to distraction, it is his son’s “Just Transition” and “Carbon Zero” that are causing such angst. There is also Western discontent with an equalization formula that is seen as favouring Quebec, but changing that formula could reignite the same separation fears that drove both Meech Lake and Charlottetown. Meanwhile, Quebec and the other provinces all have their own grievances.
In sum, there are many serious issues that are bringing forth the alarming cry that “Canada is broken.”
If that’s not bad enough, there’s the fact that national politics doesn’t even seem to make sense any more. The federal Liberals are only kept alive by a very strange NDP. Once the party of the “working man” it is unclear who or what they stand for now—or even why they are still around. Meanwhile, the tired Trudeau Liberals seem to be dedicated only to keeping themselves in power. Last election they won by setting an angry vaccine mandate majority against a bewildered minority of Canadians, who still thought that civil liberties were worth defending.
And even now, as he hands out new health money to the premiers, who are desperate to put a Band-Aid on their besieged systems, Trudeau is planning the next election. Like Snidely Whiplash—nyah ha ha—he is plotting a trap for Poilievre. He will use scare tactics of “two-tier medicine” to win the next election. And the country will slide further into mediocrity, division, and despair.
All of which has pundits saying “Canada is broken.”
If so, why not consider constitutional reform? In fact, dusting off that old Meech Lake relic might not be a bad place to start. Quebec accepted it, and the symbolism alone of getting Quebec to finally sign on would be a major accomplishment.
But Meech also strengthened provincial powers. In fact, it was not that different from Premier Danielle Smith’s “Sovereignty Act.” Perhaps a major portfolio, like health care, could be declared to be a purely provincial power by a constitutional change. Get the federal government completely out of health, so the provinces would not be hampered by federal interference in the obvious need to introduce private clinics and private funding. End the political games the Trudeau Liberals play with the Canada Health Act.
At the same time, give the provinces the taxing powers they need to make health work. As things stand, health is the most expensive portfolio, but the provinces have inferior taxing power. This might have made sense in 1867, when health consisted of a doctor in a buggy, with his black bag of bandages and potions. But it sure doesn’t when an aging population is demanding access to the new and expensive treatments we demand to keep us healthy, as we live twice as long as we did in 1867. Give the provinces what they need, and get the feds out.
And while we are changing the creaky old Constitution, maybe take a crack at Canada’s long-standing problem of indigenous poverty.
Tons of money, and catering to the victim mentality that obsesses so many, has only made the problem worse.
Pretending that troubled, dependent reserves are “nations” has done nothing to move the large, chronically unemployed indigenous underclass up the economic ladder. It has simply enriched those who don’t need the help. What about slowly and carefully abolishing the Indian Act, and merging the smaller reserves with existing municipalities, while leaving the larger reserves as stand-alone municipalities? What about educational and training programs to unleash the huge potential in that community, thus making it possible for ambitious young people to successfully move from remote, uneconomic communities to urban centres, where the jobs are?
This could be done in a fair way, with reasonable compensation for surrendered racial rights. Section 35 would be replaced with a recognition that indigenous people do indeed have a special place in Canada’s history. But it would be the purely symbolic section that the premiers thought they were creating in 1982. It would be shorn of its ability to be used as a weapon to extract money from the government.
The ultimate goal of the constitutional reform would be that indigenous people would henceforth be treated in exactly the same way as all Canadians.
These are two examples only of constitutional changes that could make Canada a better country. As we head toward an uncertain future, we should at least consider taking a look at updating our dusty constitution.
After all, Moses didn’t bring it down from the mountain. It was made by men. And it can be changed for the better by men and women.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy