“(...) the more serious and momentous deliberations are, the more the prevailing opinion must be close to unanimous.” -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Charles Taylor supports the New Democratic Party’s Bill C-470, which proposes to make a simple majority of valid votes expressed in a referendum the threshold at which the obligation to negotiate the secession of Quebec would set in. In doing so, Professor Taylor and the NDP are at odds with Quebeckers and the Supreme Court.
Mr. Taylor claims that the Clarity act is “insulting and paternalist by the vast majority of Quebeckers.” In fact, many public opinion polls show that Quebeckers want clarity and, by majority, do not consider one vote of difference as a reasonable rule to deprive them of Canada.
For example, an Ipsos Reid poll, released after the Parti Québécois election last September, showed that only 30 per cent of Quebeckers polled supported the bare threshold of 50 per cent plus one vote as enough to break up the country, and 55 per cent thought a majority of no lower than two-thirds was necessary.
Moreover, the NPD and Mr. Taylor ignore the 1998 opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec Secession Reference.
The Court stated that democracy means more than simple majority rule. It confirmed that this obligation to enter into negotiation can be created only by “a decision of a clear majority of the population of Quebec on a clear question to pursue secession.” The Supreme Court mentioned the words “clear majority” no less than 13 times, and also referred to a “strong” majority. And the Court refers to a “clear majority of the Quebec population” which goes beyond the valid votes expressed.
There are two fundamental reasons why negotiations for secession should be done on the basis of a clear majority.
The first reason is that the more a decision impacts on citizen rights, becomes irreversible and binds future generations, the more stringent democracy must be regarding the procedures required for such a decision to be adopted. As well, there is no doubt that secession is a serious and probably irreversible action, one that affects future generations and has serious consequences for all the citizens of the country being broken up.
The second reason is that even with all the goodwill in the world, negotiating the separation of a modern state will inevitably be difficult and fraught with pitfalls. What must not happen is that while negotiators are working on a separation agreement, the majority should change its mind and decide to oppose secession. That would be an untenable situation. That is why the process should only be undertaken if there is a sufficiently clear majority that will last through the inevitable negotiation difficulties.
However, the Supreme Court urged us not to determine what constitutes a clear majority in advance: “it will be for the political actors to determine what constitutes ‘a clear majority on a clear question’ in the circumstances under which a future referendum vote may be taken.”
This is very wise advice. There is a qualitative dimension to assessing clarity, which begs for a political assessment to be done in full understanding of the actual circumstances.
Furthermore, setting any kind of threshold in advance would expose us to the risk of leaving such a serious decision as the choice of a country to the results of a judicial recount or the examination of rejected ballots. That would put us all in a very difficult, even senseless position.
To limit the chances of disagreement over the clarity of a majority, a secessionist government only has to avoid holding a referendum until it is reasonably assured that it will win a clear majority. This assurance would come from different indicators: polls showing clear and stable majorities in favour of secession; various political forces rallying in favour of the idea, and so on.
For all these reasons, the NDP must return to the sensible and responsible position it had taken when it approved the Supreme Court opinion and the Clarity Act that gives it effect.
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.