At first glance, the NDP’s bill on Quebec secession looks like a sensible compromise. For the federal government to start negotiations after a Yes vote, the question must be “clear” – something the Parti Québécois never dared do in its two referendums – but it maintains the “50 per cent plus one” threshold for a “victory” vote.
This last rule, although it’s highly questionable (the NDP itself requires a two-thirds majority to change its constitution!), was accepted by all of the players involved in the Quebec referendums of 1980 and 1995, including the federalist leaders. Even Pierre Trudeau, the arch-defender of Canadian unity, never raised a formal objection to 50 per cent plus one.
One could add, after all, that the Liberals’ Clarity Act – which calls for both a “clear question” and a “clear majority” – is not a sacred trust and that the NDP has every right to devise a position of its own.
Pundits were quick to see this move as an electoral pitch to Quebec, which has become the new base of the NDP now that 60 per cent of its parliamentary caucus comes from that province.
The irony of the NDP’s position is that a majority of Quebeckers were actually in favour of the Clarity Act at the time it was passed by Parliament, and there’s no reason to believe their opinion has changed since then.
Shortly after the adoption of the Clarity Act in 2000, a survey supervised by Maurice Pinard, the veteran McGill University sociologist who’s among Canada’s most respected pollsters, showed that 60 per cent of Quebeckers, including 53 per cent of sovereigntists, were “strongly” or “somewhat” in favour of the legislation.
A year earlier, an extensive CROP survey had tested the principles stated by the Supreme Court decision that would form the basis of the Clarity Act – with the result that 72 per cent of francophone Quebeckers wanted a majority of at least 60 per cent in favour of sovereignty. This survey, it’s worth noting, was done with an exceptionally large sample of 4,992 respondents.
The sovereigntist leaders used the most inflammatory rhetoric to condemn the Clarity Act – a “Soviet-like law,” for example, that was “a crime against history.” But they didn’t dare organize a public demonstration against it.
There’s more. In the federal election held months after the adoption of the Clarity Act, the Chrétien government increased its standing in Quebec by nearly a dozen seats and won 44.2 per cent of the Quebec vote (against 39.9 per cent for the Bloc Québécois, which had campaigned against the law). The crushing victory of the Chrétien Liberals in Quebec was one of the reasons then-premier Lucien Bouchard resigned from politics in early 2001.
Obviously, the NDP chose to ignore these facts and carelessly took for granted that the chattering classes, which were by and large against the law on the grounds that it countered Quebec’s right to self-determination, were representative of the province’s public opinion. It was not the case, and for good reasons.
It is indeed a matter of common sense that a sizable majority should be required when it comes to abandoning Canadian citizenship and that it would be unfathomable to break up a country on a judiciary recount. Actually, the sovereigntist leaders were the first to admit (generally in private, though) that, if the result of the 1995 referendum had been reversed, with a razor-thin majority for the Yes side, it would have sent the province into chaos – and made for a very dangerous situation.