The French Revolution in Canada

In their British North America (BNA) Act of 1867, the Fathers of Canada's confederation produced a work of genius. The two senior levels of government were awarded separate and exclusive powers: Ottawa over national matters; provincial governments over property and civil rights and "generally all matters of a merely local or private nature in the province." This enabled Quebec to keep the French language, the civil code, and the French tradition of legislated rights and entitlements under a centralized authority. The English provinces kept their common law tradition of inherent freedom and responsibility under sovereign parliaments. Thus the matters which later became so prominent in national debate, namely language and culture, were constitutionally confined to the jurisdiction of the provinces.

Thirty years ago, when Quebec's Quiet Revolution stirred its sovereigntists into new life, Canada's political leaders fell into the trap of asking the wrong question, namely "What does Quebec want?" The question was unanswerable because Quebec's political leaders wanted—and still want—something the federal government had just taken away from Quebec and from all the provinces.

What Quebec's leaders wanted was the return of their constitutionally bestowed exclusive powers over property and civil rights. Prime Minister Lester Pearson was unable to give them that because...

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