Bills of Rights as Instruments of Nation-Building in Multinational States

“Bills of Rights as Instruments of Nation-Building in Multinational States: the Canadian Charter and Quebec Nationalism” in J. Kelly & C. Manfredi, eds., Contested Constitutionalism: Reflections on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009) 233-250.

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Over the course of the summer and fall of 2006, Canada debated whether Quebec should be formally recognized as a "nation", a proposal made by Michael Ignatieff. I want to draw attention to a puzzle and a curious omission arising from this debate. The puzzle, is this: although the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation generated heated debates, it was strictly a symbolic measure that would have had no legal effect. The curious omission is the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter was a direct response to the centrifugal pressures of Quebec nationalism. Yet the Charter was hardly mentioned at all during the debate over Ignatieff's proposal. I want to tie the debate over the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation to the impact of the Charter on Canadian constitutional culture. Support for Ignatieff's initiative was sharply polarized on linguistic grounds. Francophones within Quebec were its most enthusiastic supporters, whereas Anglophones outside of Quebec were its most vociferous critics. This pattern of political opinion reflects differing underlying patterns of national identification. Francophones inside Quebec tend to view Quebec as their primary national political community, whereas Anglophones outside Quebec tend to identify with Canada. These competing patterns of national identification reflect the rather mixed legacy of the Charter. The Charter was intended to serve as the centerpiece of a common Canadian nationality that transcended the linguistic divide. But while the Charter has been an effective tool for anglophone nation-building, it has been unsuccessful in combating Quebec (read: Francophone) nationalism. Indeed not only did the Charter not offset Quebec nationalism; it may have made things worse. This is a cautionary tale to multinational polities faced with the same challenge as Canada—of building a common political identity against the backdrop of competing nationalisms and which attempt to do so through a bill of rights.