Quebec separation — the issue that isn’t
There are so many topsy-turvy features to the resurgent debate over the rules of a future Quebec referendum that it is hard to know where to begin.
For one, it is playing out mostly in the House of Commons and outside Quebec — at a point when the sovereigntist presence has faded from Parliament Hill for the first time in two decades.
By contrast and notwithstanding the presence in Quebec of a sovereigntist government, the referendum issue is a non-starter in a National Assembly dominated by a federalist opposition majority.
Quebec and Ottawa have had long-distance arguments on such matters in the past. But this is not one of them.
The main federal protagonists in the argument over the percentage of referendum support required to kick-start the negotiation of Quebec’s departure from the federation are not crossing swords by proxy with the sovereigntists in the National Assembly.
They are not even really trying to engage the federal government of the day in their discussion.
The Liberals are so intent on trying to score points against the NDP on the unity issue that they don’t seem all that interested in lifting the veil of silence that cloaks the prime minister’s own position on the matter.
Yet if there was a referendum tomorrow, it is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s view that would be paramount.
Then, there is the assumption that trying to raise the bar of a pro-sovereignty referendum outcome higher than the level of a simple majority is in the best interests of the rest of Canada.
Avoiding the disruption of the departure of a major province such as Quebec is the best-case scenario.
But suppose a majority of Quebecers did give a positive answer to a clearly posed invitation to separate, to what length would a federal government be expected to go to prevent the province’s departure?
And just how doable would it be to keep Quebecers in the federation against the stated will of a majority of them, especially in light of the fact that a sovereigntist victory obtained even by the narrowest of margins would be legitimate in the eyes of most of those who man the federalist front line in Quebec?
On that score, the NDP’s view that 50 per cent plus one is a clear enough answer (as long as the question is also clear) is closer to the Quebec federalist mainstream than the federal Liberal assertion that an unspecified higher level of support is required.
But perhaps the most glaring paradox is that it should be sovereigntists in Quebec and not federalists in the rest of Canada who fret about the perils of a narrow “Yes” victory and strive to avoid having to act on it.
Who in his or her right mind would want to show up for a tough negotiation on the basis of a paper-thin mandate?
It does not take an advanced degree in mediation to know that would be a prescription for getting fleeced at the negotiating table.
In one of the previous installments of the same debate shortly after the last referendum, here is how that very case was put to the House of Commons: “If the government of Quebec chooses to go into a negotiation in which it has 51 per cent or 52 per cent support, it puts itself into an extremely weak bargaining position with the rest of the country . . . .
“It will bring Quebec to the table in a position where Quebecers are extremely weak and divided.”
That’s an excerpt from a speech Harper delivered as lead critic on unity issues for the Reform Party in 1996.
Back then, the Prime Minister was convinced that a narrow “Yes” vote would translate into a solid negotiating edge for the Canadian side in any secession negotiation.
It is hard to imagine that he has changed his mind.