Published on Americas Quarterly on April 21
Canada, the United States and Mexico share two important characteristics outside of their common membership to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – they are democracies and each has a federal system of government. We can argue about how each conducts its brand of democracy and federalism, but no one can dispute that sub-national governments in a federal state have real power. What distinguishes the nature of these three federal states depends on how the sub-national entities choose to exercise their power within their jurisdiction and beyond.
Having examined how sub-national governments function in the three countries, I have concluded that there is no common pattern of behavior. However, the province of Québec can be cited as an example of autonomy and innovation in how it conducts itself as a federated state. This year, Québec is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its so-called “Quiet Revolution,” which was the product of an extensive transformation in how the province decided to conduct its governance and how it exercised its sovereign powers within the Canadian constitution. Since then, Québec has stood out as a modern, innovative state dedicated to exercise the highest degree of provincial autonomy. Whether it was in education, health, culture and economy, Québec gave itself the tools to carve a specific and distinct personality among the Canadian provinces.
Granted, this was not done without tension and confrontation. The reforms began in the 1960’s and were nurtured and expanded in the following decades by successive governments, some dedicated to reforming Canadian federalism and others to turning Québec into a sovereign state apart from Canada. Yet, despite these tensions, Québec’s appetite to fully exercise its jurisdictions has never receded. Today, some observers call it the Québec model – a strong affirmation of Québec’s French speaking identity combined with a social democratic approach to governance, and a mixture of public and private initiatives in the management of its economy.
Where Québec may have innovated most has been in the area of its international personality. In the mid-sixties, Québec’s intergovernmental affairs minister, Paul Gérin-Lajoie, affirmed solemnly that Québec had a duty to promote economic development, natural resources, education, health and culture both within Canada and beyond its borders. This was a novel and unique idea to bring an international expression to what had emerged in the Quiet Revolution at the domestic level.
Since the heady days of what came to be known as the Gérin-Lajoie doctrine where international engagement and affirmation was the leitmotiv, Québec has gone beyond promoting its sovereign powers to playing an international role in advancing its policies in areas of shared jurisdiction with the federal government. These have included the environment, culture and immigration.
Today, the Québec government has an autonomous network of offices and participates in varying degrees in the work of three multilateral international organizations (Organization of American States, UNESCO and the International Organisation of La Francophonie). This network collaborates closely with Canadian embassies and consulates around the world. Through perseverance and advocacy, Québec has become a model for any federated state wishing to play on the international stage. It is fair to add that the Canadian federal system has displayed inherent flexibility in accommodating this model.
True, not all federated states wish to pursue such an international profile. Even in the United States, only some states like California and New York have higher international profiles. The Québec approach is, therefore, not a “one-size fits all” exercise. But it has served it well in advancing its interests in free trade, exercising its leadership in clean energy initiatives and the environment, asserting its commitment to security issues, promoting its cultural creativity and talent, and sharing expertise in the research and education world.
In doing so, Québec has given a new expression to how a federated state can reach beyond and tap into its potential. Fifty years after the Quiet Revolution, Québec emerges stronger and more confident as a polity because it chose to embrace a course that enhances its international profile.