Globe and Mail

Many Canadians met Quebec’s plan to push for constitutional renewal with a cold shoulder or shrug of indifference, but some First Nations and Métis leaders are welcoming Philippe Couillard’s initiative with open minds.

The Quebec Premier said he wants Indigenous communities to be partners in his move to obtain two major endorsements for the Canadian Constitution: his province’s and that of First Nations. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to squelch hope of a new constitutional accord before Mr. Couillard even made his announcement last week, telling reporters he is not interested.

Among several Indigenous groups, Mr. Couillard’s invitation was greeted with messages ranging from carefully measured claims for a seat at any future negotiations to ready willingness to jump on board.

Clément Chartier, president of the Métis National Council, was involved in the late 1970s process to patriate the Constitution from the British Parliament and a series of other constitutional negotiations, including the last round in 1992 that produced the Charlottetown Accord. (The plan would have recognized aboriginal rights to self-government and Quebec as a distinct society, among many other things, but was voted down in a national referendum.)

“This is unfinished business,” Mr. Chartier said in an interview. “I’ve been waiting since 1992 for constitutional talks to reopen. If there is a possibility to reopen talks to accommodate the people of Quebec and Indigenous and Métis nations, I would support that.”

Mr. Chartier and other Indigenous leaders said recognition of their rights has slowly improved over the years, but most of those gains have been won through long, expensive court battles. “The courts have been the biggest friends of aboriginal peoples since 1992. The Supreme Court has been favourable to pretty much all our cases,” Mr. Chartier said. “The right constitutional amendments would allow us to deal with our issues instead of having to fight piecemeal.”

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Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said his peoples’ rights and treaties are already recognized under the Constitution and international law, but they would participate in a Quebec initiative to expand those rights. “Any discussions on the Constitution must include First Nations at the table as full partners,” he said in a statement. “We fully expect to participate.”

While Mr. Couillard’s constitutional move didn’t come with a road map or timeline, it was a mission statement that emphasized Quebec’s vital role within Canada while setting out a series of traditional demands for Quebec, such as distinct-society recognition. The plan released Thursday is based on deeply held convictions that Mr. Couillard has earlier shared, but it also helps spell out his credentials as a defender of Quebec in time for the province’s scheduled 2018 election.

A brain surgeon by profession who is often described as the most unabashedly federalist Quebec premier in generations, Mr. Couillard made constitutional reform part of his leadership campaign in 2013. Within a year of winning election in 2014, Mr. Couillard started internal discussions about his constitutional plans and reached out to some of Quebec’s 11 First Nations to seek their input.

As he launched the plan last week, he made it clear where First Nations would stand.

“Quebec will support the aboriginal nations to ensure that their place is recognized,” Mr. Couillard’s paper said. “It is possible and even advisable for Canada to provide suitable recognition for the Quebec nation and the aboriginal nations without calling into question its unity or its ability to develop.”

Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, was among the leaders consulted by Mr. Couillard. “He’s indicated all the way back to 2014 that this was something he wanted to do,” Mr. Picard said. “He knows when you go back over history that this cannot happen for Quebec alone.”

Mr. Picard said that while Quebec has agreed First Nations should have a “foot in the door” in constitutional discussions, the province still lets them down when it comes to recognizing their rights. Resource revenue sharing, consultation on development in traditional Indigenous lands and policing are just three issues in which the province fails to deliver on promises, he said.

“There’s a very big gap between the ideals we heard expressed by Mr. Couillard and the reality on the ground,” he said. “In many ways, it remains a failed relationship on the regional level.”