The Clarity Act protects the rights and interests of all Canadians, especially Quebeckers. It guarantees that Quebeckers will never lose their membership in Canada unless they clearly intend to do so. It guarantees all Canadians that the breakup of their country will never be negotiated unless the population of a province has clearly stated its desire to withdraw from Canada.
Enacted in 2000 to give effect to the Supreme Court of Canada’s opinion concerning Quebec’s secession, the Clarity Act establishes that the House of Commons must ascertain the existence of a clear majority in answer to a clear question before the government of Canada may begin secession talks. It also provides that the government, during such negotiations, should follow the principles set out by the Supreme Court, including the principle of minority protection.
Under the leadership of Alexa McDonough, the New Democratic Party supported the Clarity Act at the time, along with Ed Broadbent, Roy Romanow and Gary Doer. Now, however, the NDP, under Thomas Mulcair, wants to replace the act with a bill full of holes, and whose main weaknesses deserve mention.
Sponsored by NDP MP Craig Scott, Bill C-470, an act “respecting democratic constitutional change,” would apply to all constitutional requests that the Quebec government may seek to support through a referendum. Thus, secession – the splitting apart of Canada – is treated as merely one issue among others.
The bill enacts these rules for Quebec only. Would a referendum be more or less valid depending on the province in which it is held?
No federation on the planet is governed through provincial referendums being held on issues under federal jurisdiction. That would be politically untenable. And what would we do, should two separate provincial referendums yield constitutionally contradictory results – on equalization, for example?
The bill provides that the federal government will have to re-evaluate the clarity of the referendum question on secession. The Clarity Act gives this role to the House.
It is more democratic for the latter to make that assessment. Since when has the NDP wanted the government to act without the approval of the House on critical issues?
This bill contradicts the opinion of the Supreme Court by giving the Quebec Court of Appeal the role of deciding the clarity of the question. In its opinion on Quebec secession, the Supreme Court assigned the responsibility for assessing clarity to politicians.
This bill also violates the Supreme Court opinion by setting a threshold in advance for evaluating the clear majority. And yet, the court issued the opinion that a clear majority had to be determined “in the circumstances under which a future referendum vote may be taken.”
The bill sets this threshold at a single vote difference. The NDP, which requires a two-thirds majority to amend its own constitution, is prepared to dismantle Canada on the basis of a recount. If 50 per cent plus one is a clear majority, then what would be an unclear majority?
Moreover, contrary to the Clarity Act, this bill does not use the turnout rate as a criterion for evaluating a clear majority.
Unlike the Clarity Act, the bill says nothing about the principles that should guide the federal government when negotiating on secession – in particular, the protection of minority rights.
The NDP’s bill deprives Canadians, and Quebeckers especially, of the guarantees provided by the Clarity Act. It shows the extent to which the NDP is sinking into intellectual confusion by trying to please the “separatists” at the expense of the rights of Quebeckers and of all Canadians.
Stéphane Dion, Liberal MP for Saint-Laurent-Cartierville and critic for Democratic Reform, sponsored the Clarity Act when he was Liberal minister responsible for intergovernmental affairs.