Quebec a Nation? Never

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The Article

Somebody pinch me. Professor Michael Ignatieff, a contender for leadership of the liberal party, wants to campaign on the supposed right of Quebec and of aboriginals to form their own “nations.” But what is a nation? Surely it is a territory with a legally-constituted sovereign government with boundaries recognized and accepted under international law? If he means a “culture,” then he ought to have said so. We all have our cultures. But since 1867 Quebec has been a province of Canada, and not a nation. So what is Ignatieff talking about? Seems to me he is proposing something that runs contrary to the will of the Canadian people, to the Senate, to Parliament, and to at least nine provincial legislatures, and that openly challenges the Constitution of Canada. Yet aside from some media reaction questioning his judgement there has been tepid public reaction – perhaps because most Canadians are understandably tired of the whole topic, and … they have never been given straight answers to fundamental questions. Such as:

Who Gives Permission to Separate and Form a New Nation?

In a heated radio debate against Bernard Landry when he was Vice-President of the P.Q., I asked him, “Why do you think Quebec (or any other province) has the right to separate?” Without hesitation, he blurted out: “Democracy. We have been a democracy for three hundred years!” Then he cited the tiresome idea that all any separatist party needs is “a majority of fifty per cent – plus one vote” to recreate itself as a new nation. His eyes glazed over when I argued that neither Canada nor any of its provinces has ever been a direct “democracy” in the sense he was implying. Our Parliament makes our law, not the people directly. I also argued that the 50% plus one idea, besides not being legal, is not sensible either, for it means that if one half of the people in a province say NO, and one half say YES – in which case both sides are legitimately opposed, balanced, and equally in the right – a single citizen could change his mind, walk into a ballot box, and decide the entire destiny of Canada. That has always been the weakness of direct democratic methods attempted within federations.

Fortunately, Canada is a federal state – a constitutional, representative democracy, not a direct one, and one of the founding motives in its original design was to avoid, if not make impossible the very sort of democratic destruction of the nation separatists have imagined. By contrast, the core idea of federations is that they have a tangible and legal reality that is more than the sum of their parts. As constitutional lawyer Stephen Scott of McGill once said: it would be “disastrous for constitutional negotiations to proceed on the premise that a province, if dissatisfied, can overthrow the state,” for no federation could possibly survive such a premise. Rather, in all federations serious national matters are decided, not by the opinion of one half of any political party, or subordinate group, or territory, but by the whole union acting according to the law of the Constitution. Canada’s Constitution already has a perfectly good legal amending procedure (in Part V) that could be used to arrange the separation of any province if the people as a whole wanted such a thing. But this section specifies that no province of Canada has the legal right to alter boundaries without the consent of the House of Commons, The Senate, and all the provincial Legislatures. Any other method would be a revolt against the government of Canada.

Who Decides What May Be Taken?

In the unlikely event a province ever won the legal right to form itself into a new nation, as above, struggles would already have arisen over property rights. For Canada as a whole belongs to the people as a whole, regardless of where they happen to live. It is not as if by living in Ontario today you have some legal property claim over your proportionate share of that province, and then by moving to Alberta next week you surrender this, and now claim a new proportionate right over a piece of Alberta. Quebecers do not “own” Quebec any more than Albertans own Alberta. Canada is not like a condo, in which each apartment (or province) is owned by some specified citizens and not by others. It’s more like a building having 12 rooms (provinces and territories) that is owned-in-common by all. So a small group trying to rip a province or territory out of Canada would be like someone trying to chain-saw a room off the building without the permission of the other owners. And it happens that most of Canada’s territory and property inside Quebec boundaries was originally placed under Quebec’s jurisdiction to be administered as a province of Canada, and not as a separate nation. So Canada would probably and rightfully claim a good deal of it. The truth is Canadians through their government alone have the right to decide on all terms and conditions for the break-up of their country, on debt repayment, or on land settlement, under the laws of the Constitution.

Can We Separate From Separatists?

This is the catch-22 of all separatist arguments based on the 50% plus one idea, because any argument successfully used to legitimize the division of Canada can as easily be used to legitimize in turn the division of a maverick province. In Quebec, native people and anglophones would quickly seize upon separatist-style arguments either to remain there in Canadian enclaves, or to create their own new provinces. During the last so-called “referendum” (it was really a unilateral provincial plebiscite, not a legal national referendum) one group of anglophone Quebecers was already campaigning to form “Quebec West” as a new nation. Only force can stop this domino effect once separation on such flimsy grounds is condoned. That is why you can vote your way in to most federations, but not out of them once they are duly constituted.

So the truth seems to be that under the laws of Canada, there can be: No unilateral referendums by provinces to decide the fate of the whole nation. No unilaterally declared “nations” formed inside the nation of Canada. And no unilateral claims by provinces to sovereign territory or property belonging to all Canadians.

How long must we endure politicians so eager to secure Quebec votes they are willing to suppress these nation-binding truths?

William D. Gairdner
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