Brian Tobin, former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, was one of many experts to take part in U of T's recent conference on the Quebec Question for the Next Generation. (Photo by Christian Peterson)

The Quebec Question for the next generation

Former politicians, policy experts explore today's outlook at U of T conference

When was the last time you participated in a debate about or even heard the phrase Quebec sovereignty?


On Feb. 7, the top minds in Canadian federalism and Quebec sovereignty assembled at the University of Toronto’s Faculty Club for The Quebec Question for the Next Generation, a conference intended to reinvigorate the discussion about Quebec’s autonomy and the future of Canada.

“It’s interesting that people still care about this,” said U of T’s Chancellor David Peterson, who as Ontario premier in the 1980s was immersed in the issue. “I congratulate the organizers for putting it back on the public policy radar screen.”

Many Canadians take the silence that surrounds the Quebec question as a sign that the debate has been resolved. That assumption is incorrect, say  conference organizers -- the U of T’s School of Public Policy and Governance and the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and the Groupe de recherche sur les sociétés plurinationales at UQAM.

The issue of Quebec’s independence may have been dormant for the past decade or so, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.  

“How can we not speak about such a big question that has animated us since Confederation?” asked Irvin Studin, conference organizer and program director in the School of Public Policy and Governance.

The day-long conference featured speakers from both the political and academic arenas. Among the panellists were Louise Arbour, president and CEO of International Crisis Group and former Supreme Court of Canada Justice; Ian Brodie, a former chief of staff to Prime Minister Harper; Alexandre Cloutier a member of the National Assembly of Quebec; Bernard Landry, former Premier of Quebec and a professor at UQAM; and Brian Tobin, former Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador and former federal Cabinet minister in the Jean Chretien government.

The former premiers shared their perspectives on events such as the Meech Lake Accord and the 1995 Quebec Referendum with a renewed desire to move the debate forward. Peterson challenged the young people present to carry on the discussion with new energy and ideas.

Richard Simeon, a panel moderator and professor of political science and law at U of T shared these sentiments.

“We don’t want to go into the past, but go into the future searching for fresh ideas,” he said.

However, this moment of shared understanding did not mean there weren’t diverse opinions on the issue of Quebec’s independence.

Landry, an ardent supporter of Quebec sovereignty, told the audience that separation is the only answer for Quebec.

“I do not accept my nation as a province of another nation,” he said. “Independence in Quebec is supported more today than in 1995.”

Jade-Emilie Daigneault, a master’s student in sociology who hails from Montreal, said that while she can sympathize with Landry’s perspective, it is old thinking and it won’t help move the debate forward.

“It’s always about the constitution problem,” she said.

Landry’s impassioned plea for sovereignty reignited Tobin’s political pulse. “I’m not on the treadmill and my heart rate is at 160,” he said as he took the podium.   

Tobin suggested that the success of the NDP in the last federal election was a sign that Quebecers want to change the debate.

“They want to focus on the economy and the day-to-day concerns of any citizen rather than the larger, never-ending constitutional debate,” he added. 

As expected the discussion hit a few nerves.

Tobin said the divide between federalism and separatism will always be there and it should inspire Canadians to find new ways to resolve the Quebec question.

“That’s the fundamental divide, it will always be there,” he said.  “Don’t try to fix it, don’t try to solve it, try to understand the real dynamic, work with that, not history.”

Andrew McDougall, a PhD candidate in political science, agreed with Tobin’s suggestion.

“The divide has always been one of the fundamental characteristics of the country,” he said. “It will never be resolved; it’s the very managing of it that will define Canada in many ways.”



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