The federal New Democrats, who head back to Parliament promising to act like a government-in-waiting, could find themselves on the defensive over the conditions they would establish for the breakup of Canada.
Members of the 100-person caucus confirmed at a meeting in St. John’s this week that they remain committed to party policy that states Quebec could separate if sovereigntist forces muster 50 per cent plus one vote in a future referendum.
That formula is spelled out in the NDP’s 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration, a policy drafted under former leader Jack Layton at a time when the New Democrats were little more than a fringe party in Quebec – and well before they picked up nearly 60 seats there in the 2011 election.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who attended a meeting of his caucus in the Newfoundland and Labrador capital this week, told reporters he was not merely at ease with the wording of the declaration, he was “proud” of it.
But the document would seem to run counter to the federal Clarity Act, which was passed into law in 2000. It says negotiations leading to the secession of Quebec from Canada could take place only after a referendum result with a “clear majority,” as determined by the House of Commons.
Other New Democrat MPs found themselves defending their declaration’s provisions after an anonymous Liberal was quoted in a Quebec newspaper as saying his party might introduce a motion this fall reaffirming support for the Clarity Act.
“I think it is a very solid piece of work, it represents who we are as a party, our position on Quebec, and I think people feel very comfortable with it,” said party veteran Libby Davies, an MP from British Columbia.
The possibility of a vote on Quebec sovereignty being called any time soon was significantly reduced on Tuesday when Pauline Marois’s Parti Québécois was elected with only a narrow minority.
But the Liberals and the Conservatives could use the Sherbrooke Declaration, as well as the fact that several Quebec members of the NDP caucus have old ties to separatist elements, to suggest that the New Democrats are soft on federalism – an accusation that could weaken the party’s support in the rest of Canada.
The Liberal threat to introduce a motion forcing a show of support for the act would be political mischief from a party that was supplanted as the Official Opposition by the NDP. But it would also prompt much discussion about where the New Democrats actually stand on sovereignty and whether 50 per cent plus one can be construed as a “clear” indication of Quebeckers’ will.
When cornered by reporters in St. John’s, MP Charlie Angus said 51 per cent of the popular vote is considered to be a staggering endorsement of a member of Parliament, and should be good enough to express the democratic will of Quebeckers.
“The people of Quebec realize the New Democrats have faith in the Quebec people and we treat them with respect,” Mr. Angus said, “and we believe, by showing a positive federalist alternative, they will continue to work with the rest of Canada and we don’t have to threaten or blackmail or hold them to any standard other than respect.”