The federal Clarity Act of 2000 was just that -- an attempt to bring clarity to the murky question of when and how Quebec might separate from the rest of Canada. On Thursday, one of the soft nationalists Paul Martin has recruited to join his federal Liberals delivered a brief tirade against the law. It was "useless," said Jean Lapierre, Mr. Martin's new Quebec lieutenant and a founder of the Bloc Québécois, "because it wouldn't change anything. If there was a will in Quebec, a clear will to separate, they would not be able to stop a will like that by trying to have tricks."
"Tricks"? The Clarity Act was based on a 1998 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that Quebec has a legal right to secede, but could not decide its legal status "alone." It would have to negotiate with the federal government. Ottawa would in turn have to negotiate with Quebec, but only if a "clear majority" of Quebeckers had voted on a "clear question to secede." Here's an example of an unclear question, posed by then-premier Jacques Parizeau in the sovereignty referendum of 1995: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
Mr. Lapierre says the law amounts to "tricks" designed to thwart "a clear will." It takes two negotiators to recognize a clear will; that's why the federal law says the Commons would say beforehand whether it considered a referendum question clear. If Mr. Lapierre means the act wouldn't stop Quebec from declaring secession unilaterally -- and illegally -- that's another question entirely, and raises a host of other questions, such as whether the international community would agree to recognize a rogue state.
On Aug. 24, 1998, a columnist in The Globe and Mail wrote about the Supreme Court's ruling. "The real winners in this reference are the people of Quebec and the people of the rest of Canada. With this decision, Quebeckers are protected from les astuces (clever tricks) of people such as Mr. Parizeau. They are also empowered, because the Quebec government cannot go ahead with a sovereignty project without the unequivocal support of its voters. And, with a clear question, the people voting in another referendum will know exactly what their vote means. The people of Canada also benefit from the new clarity. There is no longer any room for complacency or wishful thinking."
Exactly. Two years later, the Clarity Act aimed to ensure, on behalf of all the people of Canada, that everyone would agree in advance on what constituted a clear question. The columnist, by the way, was Jean Lapierre.
Mr. Martin was never comfortable with the Clarity Act, which was driven by Mr. Chrétien and minister Stéphane Dion. Mr. Martin thought it was provocative. Yesterday, rather than stand up for the virtues of the act, he said only that it would remain the law. "I'm certain that while I'm prime minister there will never be a referendum, because we're going to have the kind of country where Quebeckers will want to build a stronger Canada."
We expect and hope so. Question is, how strongly does Mr. Lapierre feel that way? His talk of Ottawa thwarting Quebec's will with "tricks" should give everyone, including Mr. Martin, pause.