Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Just 10 years ago: the Secession Reference

William Johnson, Montreal journalist turned scourge of separatism, notes in the Globe & Mail the tenth anniversary today of the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling on the legality of a separation by Quebec based on a referendum outcome.

He gives a useful reminder. (That was only ten years ago?) The Supreme Court ruling set out three principles that would have to be respected in any post-referendum movement toward Quebec sovereignty: the rule of law, the principle of federalism, and the rights of minorities had to be respected in any procedure following a referendum.

Johnson's main thrust, however, is an attack on all the politicians who have said that, in the event of a sufficiently large "yes" to a clear question on separation, they would accept the breakup of the country. Johnson denounces this as the "only the vote counts" response, as if it were a repudiation of the Supreme Court. I'm not sure he's right. Democrats are entitled to say they would accept the outcome of a legitimate referendum, I think, even though it is true that the three principles would have to be followed in the actions that followed.

The SCC declaration needs to be distinguished from the "clear question" debate. It was the federal government's "Clarity Act" that established that Canada would only feel bound by a referendum if the question was clear. In effect, Canada has asserted a federal right to participate in defining the question, failing which it would not be bound by the answer.

That seems to have been smart strategy (actually, it was mostly Stephane Dion's). But I've always suspected it's not the question, it's the answer that matters most.

Too many Quebeckers who do not want an independent Quebec have been willing to vote Yes, on the assumption that their vote would not be taken seriously. I fear the Clarity Act only encourages such behaviour. I've been inclined to think the government of Canada should make it clear that if the voters of Quebec ever gave a majority Yes to any referendum question related to sovereignty proposed by a Parti Quebecois government, then they should be prepared to accept the consequences. Yes means Yes, I'd be inclined to suggest to Quebec voter, we cannot continue to indulge those dangerous "Noui" evasions.

Last week, I was at Gettysburg, a place that gives one much to ponder about the possible consequences of these kinds of debates. James McPherson's Pulitzer Prize- winning history Battle Cry of Freedom is profound about the coming of secession, how secession provoked an armed conflict no one really expected or intended, and how that conflict escalated.
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