Eminent Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor claims that the Clarity Act is a recipe for endless wrangling, which is why he adds that the majority of Quebecers view the legislation as insulting and paternalist. For this reason, he endorses the current effort on the part of the New Democratic Party to amend the Act.
In February, 2000, I was the first witness to appear before Parliamentary hearings on the Clarity Act (Bill C-20). At that time, some insisted that the secession of a province was a political question and that the law had no role. Along these lines, Mr. Taylor argues that it is a political issue that calls for a political solution. But there are both political and legal dimensions to the issue and there was a need for legislative measures aimed at addressing the political wrangling that would inevitably arise from a narrow referendum victory based on an unclear question.
The growing preoccupation over such a scenario is why the majority of Canadians including many Quebeckers continue to support the Clarity Act.
Mr. Taylor describes the Clarity Act as an “arbitrary after-the-fact shifting of the goalposts” that angers Quebeckers. But after two referendums, most Canadians – including many Quebeckers – legitimately sought a response from the federal government in the event of a future referendum that threatened the unity of Canada. Surely, the Clarity Act will not meet with the approval of advocates of Quebec secession. That said, Mr. Taylor might be surprised to find out just how many Quebeckers that share his federalist convictions actually support the legislation.
Mr. Taylor contends that no simple act of Parliament can prevent the people of Quebec (presumably he means the majority) from seeking independence, if they so choose. But the Clarity Act does not prevent Quebec from doing so. Nor does it explicitly set the percentage for what constitutes a clear majority in a referendum. Rather it points out that the federal government has a role in such matters and that the terms of a political divorce cannot be set out by provincial authorities alone. Before the Clarity bill, Quebeckers were led to believe that the rules governing the process of secession could be established exclusively by the government of Quebec. For more than two decades this illusion was cleverly nurtured by dismissing opposing views as nothing but federalist scare tactics.
Mr. Taylor contends the Clarity Act gives political ammunition to the separatist movement. Yet a Leger Marketing survey which appeared in Le Devoir, on Feb. 9, reveals that support for separation on the part of Quebeckers is at a low point and their desire for a referendum is even weaker. Under these circumstances, one wonders why the New Democratic Party feels compelled to make the matter a priority.
Is the NDP worried about pressure from the hapless Bloc Quebecois with its motion to repeal the Act? Is it because there is a Parti Quebecois minority government in Quebec? Mr. Taylor would have us believe that the NDP is engaged in a brave attempt to confront the issue and put partisan considerations aside. But it is most likely the NDP’s motivation is a concern that it will lose support amongst its voter base in Quebec if it fails to take some stand on the matter. It is no more above partisan consideration that any other ‘party’ in the matter
At times, Mr. Taylor’s argument seems confusing. He questions the value of a legislative solution to a political problem. Yet he appears preoccupied by the legislative problem that will arise in the absence of the Clarity Act. For this reason he points that “the NDP will rightly vote down the Bloc bill to repeal clarity, which would have left us with a legal void.” If Mr. Taylor indeed believes this is a purely political matter, the logical course for the NDP would be to support the Bloc Quebecois’ motion to repeal the Clarity bill. To do so, however, would surely have consequences for the NDP’s voter support, not only outside of Quebec but very possibly within the province.
Jack Jedwab is executive director of the Association for Canadian Studies