On October 4th, 2012, the separatist party won a minority mandate in the province of Quebec. Twice before the separatist Parti Québécois held government, elected first in 1976 and again in 1981, and then during a second wave in the 1990s with election in 1994 and 1998. Within four years of the 1976 victory under René Lévesque, a referendum was held on the separation of Quebec from Canada. Under Jacques Parizeau in the 1990s, only one year separated the election of the PQ and the holding of a referendum to break up the country. Despite the PQ only winning a minority government in 2012, unlike the back-to-back majority victories of the past, there are now rumblings of a possible third referendum on Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada as the province’s new Premier has such a vote at the top of her political agenda.
The Clarity Act – Spelling Out Our Responsibilities to Each Other
However, in the time since the last referendum a safety has been placed on the metaphorical gun that would end the current configuration of our federation as we know it. That safety is the Clarity Act, ushered in by Stephane Dion under the government of Jean Chrétien after an extremely close vote on the separation of Quebec in 1995. Those who rejected separatism won the referendum by only 1.16%. This is in comparison to the ‘no’ side winning the 1980 referendum by 19.12%. The question asked of Quebecers in 1995 was as follows:
“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”
Federalists argued that the question of Quebec’s separation was proposed so vaguely and the acceptable margin for which to determine a vote in favour of separating so small that clarity must be brought to any future debate on the issue. Rather than a convoluted question that suggested vaguely that the economic and political relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada would be altered, federalists wanted a clear question with no confusion as to the meaning of what was being decided. They also wanted those voting in a referendum to know ahead of time what the results would mean. And finally they wanted to ensure that a province so integral to Confederation, as all of Canada’s provinces and territories are, would not secede from the rest of the country by the slimmest of majorities that while still a majority would rip an almost equal minority of Canadians from their democratically chosen country.
The Sherbrooke Declaration - Soft on Sovereignty
Initially the federal NDP supported the Clarity Act and the details it entailed. However, in 2005 under the leadership of Jack Layton and with party strategists now beginning to look towards Quebec to make inroads with the Canadian electorate, the NDP began to relax its own position on the requirements for cutting a province out of Canada’s national fabric. Perhaps they had seen the public beating Stephane Dion’s popularity had taken in Quebec for fighting to keep Canada together with his Clarity Act. Whatever the reason, the NDP publicly stated then and has reaffirmed since September 4, 2012 that it would support contravening the Clarity Act in the event of a referendum vote with a result of 50% plus 1 (vote), arguing that is enough for Quebec or any province to remove themselves from Confederation.
To put it in more concrete terms, if just 27,145 more people had voted for sovereignty1995 (or 2,335,505 people had voted in favour of separation instead of the 2,308,360 who did) the NDP would have been fine with the province seceding from the rest of the country. I repeat, if just 27,145 more people had voted for sovereignty on a murky question in 1995, the NDP would be fine with Quebec no longer being a province of Canada and Canada having about 24% less of its citizens. Nevermind the fact that any vote on sovereignty will only include the voices of those who came out to vote or were able to come out to vote. In 1995 almost 94% of Quebecers came to the polls. In 1980, under 86% cast a ballot. If greater than 14% of Quebecers don’t show up to the polls, how valid is the NDP conception of a majority of 50% plus 1 vote? If even just over 5% of Quebecers don’t show up or aren’t able to on the day of a referendum, how valid is 50% plus 1 vote then?
Yet NDP Deputy Leader Libby Davies recently defended the Sherbrooke Declaration saying, “It’s a solid piece of work and we stand by it.” NDP MP Charlie Angus agreed, saying the Sherbrooke Declaration showed Quebecers that the NDP trusts them to decide for themselves and is a major reason they won so many seats in that province during the 2011 election. What he neglected to add, however, is that the separatist Parti Québécois who just won election in Quebec at the provincial level was swept to power on the same sentiment, and with the same policy on what constitutes fair grounds for breaking up the country.
Angus also neglected to add that what his party sees as a fair number in Quebec, 50% plus 1, they do not see as a fair number internally. The NDP requires a two-thirds majority to change anything in it’s own constitution as a political party. They do this to ensure the will of the majority is thoroughly fleshed out and so a major-minority is not cast aside in any decision. Yet since 2005 the NDP as a party has felt that the same rules it applies to itself to protect its members should not be applied to the discussion of national unity in order to protect Canada and those in the minority of current democratic opinion at any given time within a specified geographic boundary. The Sherbrooke Declaration also goes against a long held party belief in proportional representation as a fairer representation of the true will of a democratic country than the ‘winner-takes-all’ reality of our current first-past-the-post system, where a government formed with 50% of all seats plus 1 in the House of Commons does all of the governing. If 50% plus 1 is not good enough for the NDP when it comes to their own Constitution or in the governance of Canada, why should they support anything different when it comes to a referendum on national unity?
When Thunder Bay MP John Rafferty was asked about the cognitive dissonance between the policies of his party on its own governance versus that of the country, he simply said, “Hey, listen, I’m just a little guy from northern Ontario. You need to talk to the big guys about that sort of thing.” And that brings me to Thomas Mulcair.
Remember that earlier number of 27,145 voters swapping sides that would have made the difference in 1995?
To put that into further perspective, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair was put on the final ballot of the NDP convention with the support of 27,488 New Democrats, and chosen on the final ballot with the support of 33,881 NDP members. He was also elected in the riding of Outremont in the 2011 election with the support of 21,916 voters. If another referendum were to be held in Quebec, just those who supported Thomas Mulcair at the ballot box in his own riding could be the deciding factor on whether his home province and a part of our nation ceases to exist within our federation.
That’s why Thomas Mulcair’s voice on the issue of secession matters. It matters because it could be the difference in a vote on national unity. It matters because he is a national party leader. It matters because he is the leader of the Official Opposition of this country. And it matters because he aspires to one day lead this nation, that includes the province of Quebec, as Prime Minister of Canada.
Yet during the 2012 provincial election in Quebec Thomas Mulcair was strangely silent about the political climate of the province he calls home. As talk of separation ramped up, Mulcair became less visible within the province and on the national stage. To be fair, the election did take place during his summer vacation from Parliament. But to be accurate, when sovereignty rears its head in our national discourse, the most visible and well-known politician from Quebec must drop everything and stand up for federalism.
Yet Mulcair never once spoke about the election or the possible victory of a separatist party or what that might mean for Quebec and Canada. He never stood up to say what he and his party would do as the Official Opposition and the party with the most seats at the federal level by far in Quebec. He said nothing. He was silent. On the eve of the provincial election in Quebec, rather than campaign in Quebec for federalism and a united future for our country, he visited Ontario to campaign in a by-election. He has remained silent in the days since the PQ victory. He has sent out MPs from Manitoba and northern Ontario to respond for him, a Quebecer, Official Opposition leader, and possible future Prime Minister of Canada, on the issue of national unity and Quebec’s place in Canada.
The NDP supports a position that if 50% of Quebecer’s less one single voter support the province remaining in Quebec, the province would separate. If just one more voter out of the entire province, out of just those who came out to vote, decides that separation is preferable, the NDP says that’s fine with them. And if their leader remained silent during an election where the separatist threat was the central topic of discussion, what likelihood is there that he will suddenly take a stand during a provincial referendum on the issue? Why should we believe he would speak out for federalism at all? 21,916 Quebecers marked an ‘x’ beside Thomas Mulcair’s name last election. If he does not speak out on separation and there is a third referendum, what might these voters mark an ‘x’ for next?
The role of the Prime Minister of Canada is first and foremost to protect, promote and strengthen the unity of our federation. Thomas Mulcair has already shown he is not up to the job.
Unforseen Ripples – Forgotten Stakeholders
It is not democratic to harm a sizeable minority by rewarding a slim majority with all the spoils. This is what the NDP argued in terms of political representation up until their historic second place finish in the 2011 election (since which we have heard very little about proportional representation from a party now reaping the benefits of our first-past-the-post system). Yet the NDP and their Sherbrooke Declaration is completely silent on indigenous rights within the discussion of provincial sovereignty. First Nations chiefs within Quebec at the time of the 1995 referendum said that their forced secession from Canada with Quebec in the event of a ‘yes’ vote would violate international law and their right to negotiate their own future under their own rights to self-determination. The NDP plan has no consideration for the indigenous minorities of Quebec and still insists that 50% plus one voter in all of Quebec is enough for the province to separate – regardless of the concerns, wants, needs, or even rights of minorities within the province. For the record, Cree and Inuit peoples residing in Quebec held their own referendum on separation alongside the provincial ballot question in 1995 and each nation decided by 96% to remain in Canada.
The NDP claims the Sherbrooke Declaration allows the rights of voters to be championed yet it is in direct conflict with their own view of democracy within their party as well as the governing of Canada, and would contravene the rights of minorities like the Cree and Inuit living within the geographic boundaries of the province of Quebec.
The Fight for Continued Federalism
Whether there is another referendum or not, the stance a party takes on the unity of a federation nearly 150 years in existence is incredibly relevant to our national discourse about where we want to head as a country in the years to come. For me, the only direction forward is towards a federation of increased strength, cooperation, and prosperity. This does not mean pushing down any province, ethnicity, culture, or people. It means bringing together all of Canada’s people in all of our great diversity and working together to make life better for each of us within a cooperative and mutually beneficial national fabric. The NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration that would cut up our country is not only unacceptable but also counter to the future most Canadians dream of for our shared country.