If Quebecers were asked again to pronounce on their political future in a referendum, Canada and Quebec would hardly be immune to a stalemate of the kind that is pitting Catalonia against Spain.
The historical and political contexts may be different, but some of the fundamental conditions that have led to the deep political crisis that has overtaken Spain are also prevalent in this country.
But first, a brief recap: Spain’s central government contends that the country’s constitution does not allow for one of its regions to secede. In that, it is backed by court rulings. On that basis, Madrid declared the plan of its Catalonia region to hold a referendum on independence this fall illegal.
When the latter refused to desist, police forces from other regions of the country were sent to Catalonia to forcibly prevent its citizens from voting. Forty-two per cent of them still managed to do so and they voted to separate from Spain by a proportion of 9 to 1.
On Tuesday, Catalonia’s parliament issued a declaration of independence, but suspended its application in the professed hope of entering into negotiation with Madrid, but also because no major European country has stepped forward to recognize the region’s self-declared status.
As of Wednesday, there had yet to emerge common ground as to the way forward for Catalonia and Spain.
In contrast, the Canadian federation is constitutionally divisible. The Supreme Court confirmed as much in a landmark 1998 ruling. On two occasions, in 1980 and 1995, the federal government of the day cast a Quebec referendum vote as a choice between the province staying in the federation or going it alone.
But after the last referendum, a federal law was adopted that for the first time spells out conditions under which Ottawa would respond to a pro-sovereignty outcome.
Among those conditions, there is the requirement to ask a clear question approved both by the National Assembly and Parliament.
In its 1998 ruling, the Supreme Court also listed the need for a “clear” majority as a precondition for Canada to enter into post-referendum negotiation, but it did not put a percentage on that concept.
There is not among the country’s federalist forces a consensus on the issue. All Quebec parties, including the provincial Liberals as well as the federal New Democrats, agree that a simple majority should be enough.
Justin Trudeau’s government believes it should be higher.
Outside Quebec, many see the federal clarity act as a deterrent to another referendum or as an insurance policy in the case of a close pro-sovereignty result. But in the province, the act has about as much legitimacy as Spain’s constitution in Catalonia.
It is not inconceivable that a future Quebec sovereigntist government would set out to hold a referendum with little consideration for some of the federal legal prescriptions.
Under such a scenario, Ottawa would find itself in a predicament that would parallel that of Spain. It could refuse to campaign, but could not necessarily prevent Quebec’s federalist forces in the National Assembly from doing so. Short of preventing the vote from taking place, it could warn that it would refuse to negotiate on the basis of its outcome.
None of these alternatives would make a pro-secession referendum result go away.
But Quebec’s sovereignty movement would likely be no less boxed in than Catalonia currently is. Faced with a refusal on the part of Canada to acknowledge a result favourable to secession, its fallback position would be to unilaterally declare the province’s independence.
In the past, that option has rested on the assumption that France would quickly support Quebec’s move. Whether that support would have been forthcoming in 1995 is open to debate. But it is far from clear that France is still interested in any role in a Quebec UDI scenario.
In the Spain crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron has steadfastly refused to intervene, calling the issue of Catalan independence an internal matter.
As for Canada, it has so far stuck to a generic denunciation of the violence that has attended the state-ordered repression of the Catalan vote.
The push for national independence is not like chickenpox. Ottawa needn’t fear that Catalonia’s example will rekindle sovereigntist fervour in Quebec.
But in the unlikely event that it beats the constitutional and legal odds and an anemic referendum turnout and achieves its independence, the precedent would not be lost on Quebec’s sovereigntist leadership.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.