Jean Leclair

Current affiliation:
Université de Montréal

Recognized as the foremost expert of federalism in Canada, he turns a critical eye on the political relationships between peoples and governments and is developing a theory of federalism that takes into account the desire for autonomy of the Quebec and Aboriginal nations. 

How would you define yourself?

I like to think of myself of an intellectual, that is, someone whose purpose is to frankly expound on the complexity of a given reality and contribute to its intelligibility. More specifically, I am a law professor. As a professor, I have the enormous privilege, renewed annually, of being able to build intellectual fellowship with brilliant and curious students. It is a vocation that is as demanding as it is inspiring. As a specialist in constitutional law, I am interested in the way law – and not simply the standards decreed by the State – institutionalizes power in all its forms. For over ten years now I have been exploring the matter of the (re)configuration of political relations between Aboriginal peoples and governments, and their reconfiguration within Aboriginal communities themselves. The structuring effects of the law on the deployment of their relationships are my favourite field of investigation.  And finally, I also look into the epistemological issues raised by the confluence of law and the other social science disciplines.

What is the public purpose of your work? How does it impact the lives of Canadians?

In all modesty, I sometimes feel that my interventions in the public arena have sometimes demonstrated that constitutional reality – federal, in particular – cannot be reduced to the ideological shortcuts some people put forward. I hope that I have also been able to demonstrate that respect for the formal legality of a constitutional order is not, on its own, a guarantee of its stability. A constitution establishes the framework of a shared life project. Its legitimacy relies on the people’s will to submit to the standards it advocates. In other words, the law cannot be summed up as simple acts of authority. Rather, it is an enterprise that facilitates and stabilizes relations among citizens. As such, the law is sustained both by what a political community aspires to become and by the prosaic realities of its members. Unless we can establish the delicate balance between what we are and what we want to become, the legal order cannot elicit the allegiance of the people who are subject to it. This task is even more difficult to achieve in a federal situation in which the citizens are simultaneously part of two equally legitimate political communities, one federal and one provincial, and therefore two equally legitimate legal orders.

Briefly explain one of the most interesting discoveries you have made so far.

It would be a bit odd to talk about my “discoveries.” Rather, I believe I have lifted the veil on a new way of understanding federalism. Rather than seeing it as a political regime that serves solely to manage relationships among mutually exclusive groups – that is, well-entrenched nations – I have put forward the idea that federalism could allow people to cultivate a dual political belonging. In other words, from this point of view, federalism allows a citizen to cherish simultaneous membership in two equally legitimate political communities. By putting the emphasis on the individual and the individual’s pluralistic identity, I have tried to show that the Quebec and Canadian political communities should not be conflated with the Quebec and Canadian “nations” as defined by politicians. The assumed homogeneity and unanimity of the “nation” – be it Quebec or Canada – are powerful and mobilizing fictions, I agree, but fictions nonetheless. In brief, the monistic concepts of nation and sovereignty do not adequately explain the dynamics of the federal universe. On the contrary, from this perspective, federalism’s virtue lies in the fact that it allows the citizen to reject two nationalist projects they find partly – but not entirely – distasteful. The federal dynamic is interesting in that it obliges the two orders of government to conceive of the world in a truly pluralist rather than monistic way.

How will the Trudeau fellowship help you pursue your work?

First of all, this award is reassuring for me. My profile is not one that generally leads to a career of honours. I have never directed a big, subsidized project, I do not hold a research chair, I have never received an award. I think slowly and I do not have the least pretensions about being internationally renowned. That said, like many of my colleagues, I am enthusiastic about my work, and every day I measure the extent of what I don’t know  by the yardstick of what I do know, which does not prevent me, like them, from sometimes feeling that I deserved to be recognized. So the Trudeau fellowship acknowledges the value and importance of this kind of contribution.

Second, and more concretely, this award will allow me to dedicate time to writing a book exploring a theory of federalism that will satisfy the desire for autonomy of the Quebec and Aboriginal political communities without requiring the members of these communities to espouse a monistic conception of their identity.

Born in Montréal in 1963, Jean Leclair obtained his law degree from the Université de Montreal in 1985 and was admitted to the Quebec Bar a year later. He then clerked for the Honorable Alice Desjardins, justice of Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal. After having been awarded the Duff-Rinfret scholarship, Leclair pursued graduate studies of law (LLM) under the supervision of Professor André Morel and was appointed professor of constitutional law and legal history at the Université de Montréal in 1991. In 1999, he launched a course entitled "Aboriginal Legal Issues."

Professor Leclair’s interest for federalism has led him to author various studies on the administration of the environment in the Canadian federal structure and on the constitutional underpinnings of Canadian bijuralism. For more than ten years, he has been interested in the (re)configuration of political relationships between Aboriginal peoples and governments and the reconfiguration of relationships within Aboriginal communities. The structuring effects of law on the evolution of these relationships are his field of predilection. Professor Leclair also directs his attention to the epistemological issues created by the conjuncture of law and other areas of the social sciences. Additionally, he is working on a theory of federalism that would satisfy Aboriginal communities without requiring their members to adhere to a monistic concept of their identity.

Professor Leclair loves Argentine tango and is a founding member of the Les Veilleurs de Nuit, a Montréal-based theater company (