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Cablegate: Asymmetric Federalism - a View From Quebec

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

061859Z Oct 04




E.O. 12958: N/A


(SBU) 1. Summary: "Asymmetric Federalism" - the notion that not
all Canadian provinces need be treated equally by the federal
government -- has received attention in the press following the
federal-provincial summit on health (reftel), at which Quebec
obtained special language in an agreement signed by all
provinces. In a conversation with the Consul-General, Quebec's
minister responsible for its relations with the federal
government, Benoit Pelletier, claimed to be surprised at the
attention, and sought to downplay its significance. But the
concept offers a less-confrontational framework in which Quebec
leaders can pursue Quebec goals, as well as hopes for improved
standing with Quebec voters for federal and provincial Liberals.
End Summary.

(SBU) 2. CG spoke with Quebec Minister for Canadian
Intergovernmental and Aboriginal Affairs Benoit Pelletier on
September 28. Pelletier is Charest's minister responsible for
Quebec's relations with the federal government and was at the
health summit. Pelletier said he was frankly surprised by all
of the attention "asymmetric federalism" is now getting. It is
not a new idea, he said, although it is a Quebec Liberal Party
(PLQ) idea which Premier Charest has been pushing. Pelletier, a
constitutional lawyer, told us that in 2000 he chaired a PLQ
special committee on the political and constitutional future of
Quebec. The final report of that committee (a slick, 147 page
report entitled "A Project for Quebec: Affirmation, Autonomy and
Leadership") addressed the concept of asymmetric federalism head
on: "Asymmetry is desirable within Canada. . .The federal
formula does not rule out asymmetry in relations between the
partners in the federation."

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(SBU) 3. Pelletier was clearly pleased that asymmetric
federalism had found its place in the health summit and had
received the backing of all of the Premiers. But he now seemed
to want to dampen its significance. Pelletier cautioned against
trying to apply the concept at every turn and told CG that he
saw "absolutely no relevance for the term in the October 26
Council of the Federation discussions with the federal
government on equalization payments." Quebec has proposed that
this money be divided on the basis of provincial population.
Until now, Atlantic Canada has been receiving more money from
Ottawa because their residents are the poorest. The battle over
how to divide up federal money could disrupt the unity of the
new Council of the Federation.

(SBU) 4. For decades, Quebec's approach to federal-provincial
separation of powers is that the federal constitution denotes
which areas fall within the purview of the provinces. And if an
area is within the purview of the province - be it health,
education, or cultural issues - Quebec believes it should have
full power, including at the international level, to treat these
issues. This logic, which has found favor with both PQ and PLQ
governments, has emboldened Quebec to push much further than
other provinces in seeking an international profile. Pelletier
said that the Council of the Federation has two committees
engaged in working-level discussions with the federal government
committees: one to consider the role of the provinces in
international relations and another on the role of the provinces
in Canada-US relations. But Pelletier was dismissive of these
committees because Quebec, in his view, is "way ahead of other
provinces in both areas." He said that Quebec is far more
interested in bilateral (Quebec-Ottawa) discussions on similar
topics, and that conversations are already underway regarding
Quebec's role in international fora such as UNESCO. Federal
Heritage Minister Liza Frulla, declared recently at a UNESCO
meeting in Paris that her Quebec counterpart Lise Beauchamp
could speak on behalf of both Quebec and Canada at international
gatherings on cultural diversity when she is unable to attend
meetings. Frulla's remarks produced a commotion within Liberal
ranks, and Martin's Quebec lieutenant Jean Lapierre and federal
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Lucienne Robillard firmly
called her to order. "Canada," they said, "must speak in one

(SBU) 5. Pelletier told me that if Quebec can get the federal
government to agree to a special role for Quebec in
international fora, "then this really would be asymmetric
federalism in action!" He said his priorities have been the
health summit and the equalization payments summit. But he
expects that once these are out of the way (in November or
December), he will be pushing much harder on the role of Quebec
in international fora, especially at UNESCO. Pelletier expects
press attention to the matter at that time.

(SBU) 6. The Quebec government, said Pelletier, also would love
to have bilateral (not provincial multilateral) discussions with
Ottawa on U.S.-Canada relations. But he indicated that this is
a long-way off.

(SBU) 7. Most of the press buzz about the potential risks of
"asymmetric federalism" appears to have been among the
English-language media. For these observers, this notion that
emerged as Quebec's side deal took off (and was written as an
option for all provinces), is no more than "a la carte
provincialism" and is a huge blow to the federal structure of
Canada. But in Quebec itself, the health deal was generally
framed in terms of Quebec's "distinct" identity and the Canadian
constitutional framework that defines which areas fall within
the purview of the provinces. In a speech given at the
University of Quebec-Montreal, and published last weekend in Le
Devoir, Pelletier presented the concept, in effect, as an
acceptable way of pursuing Quebec goals without the
constitutional crises which hitherto resulted when its leaders
invoked the province's 'exceptionalism.'

(SBU) 8. Quebec Premier Jean Charest has chalked up points in
Ottawa and at home, succeeding where others have failed, by
convincing the other provincial premiers that the future of the
country lies in asymmetrical federalism. A majority of Quebec
respondents (52%) polled after the health meeting felt the
agreement represented "an historic step for Quebec." This is
good news for the Charest government whose approval rating still
stands at only 36%, just 2 points over its August numbers. PM
Martin is also apparently hopeful of improving his political
footing in Quebec, where the federal Liberals lost 16 seats in
the June election. End Comment.


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