Is it time for constitutional reform in Canada?

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Norman Spector, who served as Brian Mulroney's chief of staff in the early 1990s, penned a column in Friday's Globe and Mail suggesting that demand for constitutional reform is building.

Spector is right.

In the last election campaign, NDP Leader Jack Layton made some controversial comments about reopening constitutional reform talks. He later did some back-peddling and said Quebec can't be left out of the Constitution for decades, but re-opening it is not an immediate priority of the New Democrats.

Last summer, both Ontario and Quebec vowed to launch constitutional challenges against the Harper government's attempts to reform the senate. And last week, in the lead-up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's meeting with First Nations, a Grand Chief from Manitoba said he'd be asking Harper to schedule a conference of first ministers to explicitly spell out the constitutional rights of indigenous peoples.

Indeed, as Spector suggests, issues such as native self-government and senate reform cannot be fully realized unless we re-open the constitution.

It's been 20 years since our last attempt. The Charlottetown Accord, which would have enshrined senate reform, aboriginal self-government and a 'distinct' Quebec  into our constitution, was defeated in a national referendum in 1992.

Now, two decades later, it seems Canadians still aren't ready to revisit an era of contentious constitutional debate.

Kelly McParland summed up our collective dislike of the topic in a column for the National Post.

"Is there a more uniquely frightening prospect in Canada?" he asked. "If there's anything this country has no stomach for, it's the merest hint of another plunge into the bottomless depths of frustration that constitute constitutional discussions."

But what are we afraid of? Isn't it time we attempt to resolve the status of Quebec, aboriginal rights and senate reform through a formal constitutional process?

In a 2009 interview, former Prime Minister Joe Clark told me he was pleasantly surprised at the consensus he received while leading the negotiations on the Charlottetown Accord.

"With its multiple imperfections, the Charlottetown process reflected a will to change and to agree—and consequently to compromise, including on big issues," said Clark.

"What was extraordinary in the negotiating room was the genuine willingness of different parties to understand and respect one another and then to find difficult common ground."

Isn't it about time we try again?