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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Whistling Past the Graveyard: Constitutional Abeyances, Quebec, and the Future of Canada
David M Thomas

(Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997)
263pp. Index. Pb.: £15.99; Bibl. ISBN 0-19-541215-X.

The constitutional issue has been analysed from almost every possible angle over the past decades. The patriation of the Canadian constitution in 1982 and the collapse of the two constitutional agreements of Meech and Charlottetown have attracted the attention of many scholars in Canada and abroad. An countless number of books and academic articles have been written on this topic. Is there any room for a new perspective on this old issue? What can be learned for those interested in studying how ethnic or national conflicts have to be managed? David M. Thomas has written one of the most original and thoughtful book on this matter. He deals with the crucial issue that surrounds the successful integration of small nations within larger states.

Thomas supports the view that constitutions conceal as well as reveal. And the success comes from the avoidance of the intractable. In this perspective, the theme of avoidance leads to the notion of constitutional abeyance. The author borrows this idea from Michael Foley's The silence of Constitutions and uses it in order to provide a fresh look on the evolution of the Canadian constitutional history. He explains convincingly what abeyance is and is not and goes on the terrain of Edmond Burke in stressing, among other things, that 'unsuspecting confidence' is essential to political stability. Thomas rereads Canadian history in that perspective. He describes what the Canadian abeyances have been and how Canadians are now treating them. He mentions that "in the past, our democracy was built upon forms of power-sharing that were frequently dualist in practice. [...] It accepts anomalies and identities, protects group rights, believes in accommodation and incrementalism and a 'politics of security'. Now we have moved towards the ideas that democracy is based upon majority rule, American-style individual rights, and the politics of principle. This approach makes abeyance maintenance far more difficult, and if we cannot maintain them there will be some serious consequences [...]."(p. 40). He discusses how the one abeyance capable of tearing Canada apart, namely the status, place, and powers of Quebec, remained burried and how, from the mid-1960s, it emerged at the forefront of the Canadian constitutional issue. Thomas demonstrates that "the settled unsettlement of the preceding century had given way to 'unsettled unsettlement'" (p. 220), and that Pierre Trudeau, the former Canadian Prime Minister, tackled that abeyance vigorously by outflanking it, by erecting counterweights, and by confrontation. The author pushes the idea that the notion of abeyance should be added to the Canadian constitutional lexicon, and should become part of the way Canadians view constitutional issues. Hence, the constitutional battleground reflects the Canadian inability to deal with them satisfactorily. Thomas favours a much clearer statement of dualism and a formal recognition of Quebec's distinctiveness. I can only agree to that prescription.

François Rocher,
Carleton University

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