Thursday, June 02, 2011

On the Quebec question: (4) Devolution

So far, I've argued that there are good reasons to favour Quebec's right to determine, on its own, whether to separate from Canada. One option that has come up under various names -- "sovereignty association" or "asymmetrical federalism" -- is the possibility of devolving powers from the federal government to the Quebec government (and, in principle, to any provincial government).

Figuring out exactly what the jurisdiction of the federal government, as opposed to the provincial governments, is can get complicated. For example, the federal government has exclusive authority over marriage and divorce. However, the provinces are able to pass laws similar to marriage and divorce, such as regarding common-law marriage and civil unions. The feds have jurisdiction over criminal law, but the provinces have jurisdiction over the administration of criminal justice. This is why I didn't go to law school -- stuff like this gives me a headache.

Caveats aside, here's the division:

  • defence
  • criminal law
  • employment insurance
  • postal service
  • census
  • copyrights
  • trade regulation
  • external relations
  • money and banking
  • transportation
  • citizenship
  • Aboriginal peoples
  • property and civil rights
  • administration of justice
  • natural resources and the environment
  • education
  • health
  • welfare
  • municipalities

Notice, first, that the provinces already have tremendous power. Second, it's unlikely that Quebec would want devolved powers for defence or the postal service. So, the issues that might be devolved -- that might be worth separating over -- are probably trade, external relations and citizenship. Is there something wrong about devolving power to a province on one or all of these issues?

An instructive example of devolution is the United Kingdom, which has devolved powers to most of its constituent parts -- first Ireland, then Scotland, then Wales. (Cornwall is apparently agitating for some as well, and granting England some devolved powers from the UK Parliament is one solution to the so-called West Lothian question.) Scotland's probably the best case to consider, as the others get complicated quickly -- Wales is still relatively new, and devolution to Ireland led to splitting the country and was interrupted by the Troubles. What's interesting to note is the powers that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for -- the ones devolved from Westminster -- are almost identical to those that the provinces already have: health, education, justice and policing, rural affairs, economic development and transport. (Transport is obviously a federal issue in Canada, and economic development seems split between federal and provincial governments.)

(NB: I'm not relying on native self-government as an example, mostly because the powers devolved are obviously domestic -- First Nations groups are elevated to the level of quasi-territories rather than full-blown governments.)

I think there are some general lessons that can be learned, despite the relatively limited powers of the Scottish Parliament.

First, devolution hasn't really halted the drive towards Scottish independence. This is important. Anyone trying to tell themselves that devolution of powers would keep the separatists at bay is deluded. If anything, devolution has increased Scottish nationalism. Polling is a bit of a mess on the issue -- the Scots seem to have an aversion to the word "separation" -- but there are some signs. The Scottish National Party, as one might have guessed from the name, is an expressly separatist party, and they have served as the governing party since 2007, winning an outright majority (for the first time in the history of the devolved Parliament) in the 2011 elections. Chances are good there will be a referendum on the issue during their term; the SNP wanted to introduce one in 2010, but didn't have the votes.

Second, devolution has made separation seem less scary. Polling does support holding a referendum on the issue. There seems to be an openness in Westminster to consider allowing Scotland to go its own way, likely with some sort of formal treaty being signed between the two governments on common matters. To be fair, this point is hard to gauge, as it's not determine in advance whether Cameron would actually go through with allowing Scotland to separate, rather than devolving more power to Holyrood. But, overall, the sky would not fall if Scotland did go its own way. The UK Parliament would get a little smaller, but, otherwise, it would be a fairly manageable situation.

Third, and most importantly, devolution respects the fact that Scotland was forced into the United Kingdom against its will. Devolution recognizes that Scotland is not the same as England. Devolution acknowledges that Scotland should have its own control over key domestic issues.

You can see where I'm going with this, I trust. These points apply to Quebec, too. Devolution doesn't necessarily halt the drive towards Quebec independence. It might; after all, Northern Ireland is more strongly unionist (their term for, approximately, what we would call federalism) than separatist. But it might not. However, if the Scottish example is telling us something useful, it's that devolution can be justified on the basis of self-determination of a distinct part of a state and that devolution can be a safe point to pass through on the way to independence (and, thus, the need for establishing interstate agreements on things like defence and trade).

Is there an objection to devolving powers to Quebec, or any other province that wants them? Not that I can see -- except, possibly, that it doesn't stop separation. Of course, that just begs the question. If a strong and centralized Canada is a good thing, then each province needs to be persuaded of that. It seems likely to me that the lone hold-out on agreeing to the Constitution is likely to be the one that can't be persuaded to strengthen Canada. (I wouldn't rule it out, but I'm very skeptical.) So, again, why not give Quebec some of the federal government's powers, and see where that takes us? Asymmetrical federalism may turn out to be stable; at the very least, it should serve to make separation less of a calamity and more of an evolution.

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