What a United Ireland can learn from Québec and the Canadian Constitution

Published on 12 April 2021 at 11:53

When each citizen is not equal to all other citizens in the state, we are faced with a dictatorship, which arranges citizens in a hierarchy according to their beliefs.” - Pierre Trudeau, 1992.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) aimed to tackle systemic inequalities within all the provinces of Canada. An addition to this charter was proposed in 1992 by Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney; this addition sought to include equal rights and collective rights. It was called the Charlottetown Accord. There was staunch debate within Canada, with former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau coming back into the spotlight to deliver a speech on his opposition to the accords. A fierce debate on Collective rights versus individual rights took place, with a goal of understanding Quebec society being a key theme.


Claire Byrne's debate on a United Ireland was welcoming viewing, an open discussion, and a character showcase. At the same time, it provided a more mature discussion about how a centre ground approach might work with cultural identity changes and the inclusion of unionist symbols. While the prospect of how it could be done ranges in debate, the debate on Claire Byrne’s show reminded me of Quebec: a distinctly Francophone area both culturally and historically. At the same time, the rest of Canada is Anglophone and diverse. A similar issue was touched on in the debate concerning the new Irish and how a diverse Ireland would bring about a United Ireland with a unique character.


Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada for much of the period between 1968 and 1984 and was the leader of the Liberal Party. Trudeau believed in the liberalism of individual rights. One of his most notable quotes is from 1967 when he was Attorney General and aimed to liberalise some of Canada's social policies. With his remark that the state should remain out of the bedroom. In his belief, Trudeau held that a liberal society aimed to maximise personal freedoms.


During his speech in 1992 in opposition to the Charlottetown accords, he argued that collective rights, which are the legal rights to a group of citizens, were states' rights as only the state could represent a collaborative group. Some of the additions would rule it permissible for the state to violate individuals' constitutional rights based on their proposed collective rights. Trudeau was an ardent architect in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when he became prime minister in 1968.


In essence, with the creation of the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms act, there are essentially four classes of citizen in Canada. These include:


  • The Anglo citizen.
  • The French Quebec citizen.
  • The French-speaking Quebec citizens living outside of Quebec
  • Aboriginal citizens.


The latter Quebec group is also supported by bilingual legislation and the language community rights act. Quebec is often referred to as a distinct society with a unique character and a French-speaking majority. This is exemplified in today’s Quebec; their government is cracking down on immigration and it places preference on the French language over English for sign usage and information despite having English-supporting organisations within Quebec to follow up on the language community rights act.


Quebec is fascinating because it can be seen as an ethnic enclave, with specific laws such as secularism laws that disproportionately affect the Muslim population of Quebec. Most Canadian politicians practice bilingualism, seen in all public addresses where either an opening or a repeated paragraph of speech is cited in English and French.


Quebec has special collective rights, as seen in their current legislative process and beliefs supported by their Francophone government. Within Canada, the indigenous communities can exercise a certain degree of autonomy over their land and their laws; this was seen during their opposition to oil pipelines within Canada. It is important to remember that the four citizens in Canada are each protected under the charter of rights and freedoms and the Canadian constitution.


Some proposals for a United Ireland would place unionists at the heart of that change. Representing an electoral vote of 11%, the minority of unionism could potentially, according to Jim O'Callaghan's position paper, be given cabinet seats. In addition to being automatically assigned cabinet positions, they could be given veto powers, particular reference in a new constitution, and culturally integrated.


The PSNI would stay in Northern Ireland, and the languages of English and Irish would be the official languages which is the case in the Republic. Still, it is more contentious in Northern Ireland as they do not recognise the Irish language. Arlene Foster referred to those wishing to have their language recognised as “crocodiles” and argued that, as Polish is more widely spoken than Irish, a Polish language act should take preference. In 2020, there was a compromise that elevated the use of Irish in Northern Ireland and repealed a 1737 ban on the use of any language other than English in the court system.


The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms can serve as an example of a United Ireland that recognises its different classes of citizens and shows how collective rights can be used to impede others' rights concerning Quebec’s laws towards secularism. As part of Ireland's cultural and historical identity, areas such as bilingualism can be represented by the ancient language. An adequate integration and recognition of unionist culture that does not conflict with the rest of Ireland would have to be reached—meaning that both communities’ traditions would not impede on the rights of others and worry people outside the sphere of their beliefs.


It is not surprising that the cultural communities [an expression denoting Quebec’s so-called ethnic minorities] who are not Quebeckers of old stock, are worried: they are not a part of this unique culture, they are much lower down among the categories of the Charter. It also means that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, currently enshrined in the Constitution, must be subject to interpretation, considering the francophone majority. Collective rights, as voted into law by the majority in the National Assembly of Quebec, must guide judges in their interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and, in fact, of the Constitution in its entirety.” - Pierre Trudeau, 1992

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