Robert Libman: Legault approaches meeting with Trudeau as 'nation to nation' summit

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Are Quebec and Ottawa on another collision course? Next Friday, Premier François Legault will meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to supposedly iron out several contentious issues regarding immigration powers and responsibilities. Immigration is one of the last remaining jurisdictions that Quebec craves to exercise complete control over.

This encounter doesn’t seem like a Canadian province meeting with the federal government to settle differences, but more like a “nation to nation” summit. Quebec, under Legault, acts like a sovereign state, blithely passing laws that run roughshod over minority rights and doing whatever it wants, like with the university tuition assault, all without pushback from the rest of Canada.

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It’s chillingly apparent how Legault and his cabinet ministers have increasingly been referencing “Quebec nation” in statements — reinforcing in the public consciousness Quebec’s de-facto independence, and defiance of Ottawa — presumably as a hedge against the rise of the Parti Québécois:

That’s three gauntlets right there, thrown down in the past few weeks.

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Both Legault and Trudeau are reeling in the polls. With the Coalition Avenir Québec trailing the PQ, Legault’s nationalist anti-Ottawa rhetoric may escalate going into the meeting. He likely believes that he can ill afford to come away with much less than practically stripping Ottawa of any say over who can enter Quebec, and/or a ton of cash.

Trudeau has already shown considerable subservience to Quebec’s actions, particularly regarding language and identity politics. Since Quebec remains one of the few regions where his poll numbers are somewhat competitive, expect some major concessions. Plus, his main rival, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, has demonstrated that he intends to be a servile lackey for Legault and curry favour to win votes. Poilievre’s apparent attempt recently to get a “pro-Quebec” news clip by refusing to elaborate on a journalist’s question in English — saying smugly, “We’re in Quebec, right?” — was pathetic. It wasn’t in Pointe-au-Pic but Pointe-Claire, in Quebec’s most anglophone federal riding.

Legault may also warn Trudeau to stay out of the Bill 21 debate. After last week’s ruling, federal Justice Minister Arif Virani said Ottawa would (finally) intervene if Bill 21 ends up before the Supreme Court, “to defend the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms)” and on the pre-emptive use of the notwithstanding clause. Virani acted like Hercules when criticizing Saskatchewan’s government for invoking the notwithstanding clause to pass a law preventing children under 16 from changing their names or pronouns at school without parental consent. He even pinned a statement at the top of his Twitter profile criticizing the move. But on Bill 21, he looked like a deer in headlights at his news conference. We’ll see if the Liberals ultimately skulk away from this commitment.

This latest immigration play is another step toward Legault achieving — without a referendum — René Lévesque’s sovereignty-association, but still maintaining the perks: transfer and equalization payments from a weak-kneed Canadian federation.

“Collision” between Quebec and Ottawa is not the right choice of words if the federal government continues to allow Quebec to drive a steamroller.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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