Peter McKenna is a professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.
In less than a month, Scottish voters will have a chance to opt for independent statehood in a mid-September referendum. As of this writing, the No side has a comfortable lead of 10 percentage points, with the polls (in the Scotland on Sunday newspaper) showing the Yes camp hovering around 38 per cent.
What’s unique about this campaign – as opposed to Quebec’s two sovereignty referendums in 1980 and 1995 – is the precision of the question being posed. Unlike Quebec’s deliberately vague and ambiguous questions, the Scottish referendum is a rather straightforward: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
The separatists in Quebec, historically speaking, have always known in their heart of hearts that a clear question would be rejected by a majority of citizens. Subsequent polling did show that a sizable portion of Quebeckers did not think that they were voting for full-fledged independence in the wake of the controversial 1995 referendum.
Recently, some in the sovereignty movement wondered out loud about mimicking the Scottish experiment – that is, by utilizing an unambiguous question. Bernard Drainville, a top leadership aspirant for the Parti Québécois, has expressed support for using a simple question in any future Quebec referendum.
“People have to know what they are voting on,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Having a clear question makes it easier to focus the debate on the real issues. … In Scotland, I am seeing the benefits of being clear.”
Interestingly, Mr. Drainville’s position is largely consistent with the federal government’s 2000 Clarity Act – a key element of prime minister Jean Chrétien’s political legacy. According to the act, any future referendum question “must be free of ambiguity” if it is to trigger negotiations on the breakup of Canada. That means that any attempt, as has happened in the past, to include referendum language “on a mandate to negotiate” or other options “such as economic or political arrangements with Canada” will not be permissible.
More specifically, it says plainly: “The House of Commons shall, within 30 days after the government of a province tables in its legislative assembly or otherwise officially releases the question that it intends to submit to its voters in a referendum relating to the proposed secession of the province from Canada, consider the question and, by resolution, set out its determination on whether the question is clear.”
It goes on to state: “In considering the clarity of a referendum question, the House of Commons shall consider whether the question would result in a clear expression of the will of the population of a province on whether the province should cease to be part of Canada and become an independent state.”
Finally, the act posits: “The Government of Canada shall not enter into negotiations on the terms on which a province might be part of Canada if the House of Commons determines … that a referendum question is not clear and, for that reason, would not result in a clear expression of the will of the population of that province on whether the province should cease to be part of Canada.”
It’s unclear whether the PQ is considering such a fundamental shift in policy by accepting the core principles of the erstwhile detested Clarity Act. But if the party is ready to embrace clarity, it would be playing right into the hands of the federalists. It’s also worth remembering that the Clarity Act stipulates the need for a “clear majority” in any referendum result.
Of course, support in Quebec for independence is already falling like a stone – as is electoral support for the PQ itself. (A Leger Marketing poll in late June indicated that support for sovereignty had fallen sharply to 31 per cent among Quebeckers, while backing for the PQ had crumbled to just 20 per cent.) Things could only get worse for the PQ if Quebeckers faced the prospect of a clear question featuring language about Quebec as an independent country.
But if we take Mr. Drainville at his word, Canadians may well see the end of the sovereigntist project for decades to come. The operative word here being “may.” Only time will tell for sure.
I wish it was otherwise, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for the PQ or the sovereignty movement to emulate the Scottish model. If anything, the separatists are more likely to look upon the Sept. 18 Scottish “McReferendum” as exhibit A in their case for pushing for a more convoluted question the next time around.