How the NDP could make national unity a provincial issue

Never heard of the Sherbrooke Declaration? You’re not alone.


Adam Goldenberg is a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School and was chief speechwriter to Michael Ignatieff. 

“Paging Dr. Dix,” B.C. Premier Christy Clark told a fundraising dinner in Vancouver last week. “You’re trying to cure a disease that doesn’t exist. And the medicine might just end up killing the patient.”

The disease, of course, is Dutch, and the politics are simple. By pitting natural resources against manufacturing, the federal NDP has hamstrung its brothers and sisters in the West, and handed the centre-right governments of B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan a misstep to build a dream on. Our oil, gas, potash, and uranium pay for our schools and hospitals, they say—and cheap daycare in Quebec, too.

“I know it’s my job to fight for families,” Ms. Clark thundered on Tuesday. “Not in Quebec, but families right here in British Columbia.” One thing is sure: B.C. families can get used to hearing that line.

Unlike the Liberals or the Conservatives, the NDP’s provincial and federal wings are one and the same; in B.C., Adrian Dix’s party is also Thomas Mulcair’s. And so, after Mr. Mulcair mused about “Dutch disease,” it fell to Mr. Dix to plug the hole in the dike. He chose not to, and has instead refused publicly to condemn his federal boss, which may be for the best—his private thoughts are probably too coarse to print.

But though Mr. Mulcair’s message on the economy is most troublesome for his Western co-partisans, another NDP policy is a more serious liability under the law: the Sherbrooke Declaration.

Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Few NDP policies have been less publicized in English Canada. Adopted in 2005, the policy document was part and parcel of the NDP’s mating dance with Quebec. “The NDP would recognize a majority decision (50 per cent + 1) of the Quebec people in the event of a referendum,” it states. “The NDP recognizes as well that the right to self-determination implies that the [Quebec National Assembly] is able to write a referendum question and that the citizens of Quebec are able to answer it freely.”

For the NDP, the Sherbrooke Declaration represented a major, if unheralded, change of heart. Five years earlier, NDP MPs had voted to support Jean Chrétien’s Clarity Act, federal legislation that grants Parliament the power to decide whether a referendum question—and a potential “yes” majority—are sufficiently clear to give the Quebec government a mandate to negotiate secession.

Despite the Sherbrooke Declaration—and his own past opposition—NDP leader Jack Layton pledged his support for the Clarity Act during the 2006 election campaign. By 2011, as legions of former Bloc Québécois supporters turned orange, the Sherbrooke Declaration was back, just below the surface. And earlier this year, Mr. Mulcair made it official: “Democracy is 50 percent plus one,” he told Reuters. “Period. Full stop. That’s it.”

Is it? The Supreme Court, in its 1998 decision in Reference re Secession of Quebec, ruled otherwise. “Democracy,” it held, “means more than simple majority rule.” In the Court’s words, only “a clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favour of secession would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative.” And just what constitutes a “clear majority?” The Court was coy: “It will be for the political actors to determine what constitutes ‘a clear majority on a clear question.’”

Under Mr. Mulcair, the NDP has decided that a majority need only be simple to be clear, and that Quebec alone may judge the clarity of the question. Never mind that Parliament has written nearly the opposite into law.

And so we return to the unfortunate Mr. Dix. He will be, if today’s polls hold true, the next Premier of B.C., and he will lead a governing party that opposes the formula for secession devised by the Supreme Court of Canada and enacted by Parliament. Would a Dix government accept a simple majority vote as sufficient to begin breaking up the country? Given his unquestioning acquiescence to Mr. Mulcair’s other policy positions—most recently resource development—the answer would seem to be yes. And in the event of a referendum, Victoria’s position would be anything but irrelevant; according to the Supreme Court, a “clear majority on a clear question” would give Quebec a mandate to negotiate secession, which “all of the other participants in Confederation would have to recognize.” That includes the Government of B.C.

Unless and until Mr. Dix opens up some daylight between himself and his federal sibling, he runs the risk of handing Ms. Clark yet another rhetorical cudgel of Mr. Mulcair’s making, in an election campaign that’s otherwise Mr. Dix’s to lose. Sure, he can try to dodge questions about Quebec and Dutch disease—but if he does, he’ll be skating in wooden shoes.

Follow Adam Goldenberg at @adamgoldenberg.

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How the NDP could make national unity a provincial issue

  1. Well, I’m not the least concerned about the ‘Sherbrooke Declaration’. It’s just a party policy, not a law, and in the event of another separation crisis won’t matter at all.

    However it’s ridiculous to say that a national leader can’t discuss the national economy without provincial premiers…or pundits….getting in a tizzy about it. So what if they do? It’s still got to be examined and discussed, whether it treads on toes or not.

    This national urge to hush things up, or pretend, or ‘send signals’ instead of speaking plainly just gets us into more trouble.

    • The Libs are really getting short-sheeted on the resources vs. manufacturing debate when all they say is “don’t be divisive”. The NDP are talking about some real stuff with real consequences, but they haven’t put forth a detailed plan yet. Harper’s got a lock on “sell the oil, screw manufacturing and the environment”, but there’s room for different policy on everything else. Maybe they should get a plan rather than write articles like this.

      • Why is everyone saying that the Harper govt is sacking the environment??

        I have been an active participant at environmental review panels in Alberta where the Feds showed up but did not really have any knowledge of the project.

        If the provincial environmental review process approves a project and it has no impact on Ottawa why would they need to be involved.

        Aren’t the provinces dealt these powers??

        • Because they’re sacking the environment and making sure there’s no way to redress the situation.

          • How??

            There is still provincial environmental review process.

          • even after the cuts to environmental monitoring, there have been more and more attacks. It’s been all over the news. You should keep up.

          • What cuts have been enacted?
            What attacks have there been on the environment??
            Where in the news have these “attacks on the environment” been reported??

            The proposed legislation is meant to stream line the environmental review process that is bloated with the typical civil service bloat. Much like any duplication by Federal and Provincial govts there only needs to be one reviewer.

            Tell me in your own words why the provincial environmental review processes are insufficient for the citizens of that province???

          • I’m not your research monkey.

          • What a joke you are, funny how people without facts to back up their arguments clam up when pressed for their “facts”.

            Maybe you should stick to the sand box with your whining, I hear Tommy will need a new playmate soon.

    • You miss the entire point of what Mulcair is doing with the issue.

      He is laying the blame for the poor financial situations of Ont. and QC. on the success of the hard working western provinces.

      This is not a “national” leader discussing the national economy, it is playing to the only base that the NDP has Quebec, how does one province make a nation??

      Oh wait I forgot it is Quebec a nation unto itself. Maybe they can quit our currency and living off of our largess.

  2. Once again, federal Liberals, unable to contribute anything useful to the political, economic, energy and environmental debates of the present–and please note that this article puts forward not one single positive policy proposal–have decided to try to restart the sterile constitutional and unity debates of the 1990s.

    Those debates helped fill the pockets of any number of Liberal government friends in Quebec, as Sheila Fraser and Judge Gomery found, but I doubt they did much to advance national unity.

  3. Interesting. let’s think a bit and see how it plays out – quebec runs with a slanted question, wins with narrow majority. Feds come to the table to negotiate amendment for Que. to leave Canada. Several provinces don’t come to the table – so the amendment necessary to allow Quebec to leave Canada can’t even happen. Everyone’s in the right and the court has said it won’t make rulings on the issue. FRance and the US won’t recognize Quebec independence so the international gambit fails. Probably, come to think of it, the best thing.

    In other words, the fear among Liberals is getting palpable. I hope they stick around because they have a history of doing some good stuff and I would hate to see a two party system, but these kinds of stunts aren’t helping them.

  4. If anyone needs to create some daylight it’s Ms. Clark and her connection with the oil/Harper forces. Federal Liberals would be well advised to keep their distance from her if they hope to improve their electoral count out here.

    • yeah the author’s unspoken attempt at “the federal liberal leader can distance himself from the bc premier oilsands , but the NDP provnincal leader will be 100% required to agree wholly with any proposal floated by the NDP federal party” is weak at best.

      Pretty underwhleming articles from Liberals like Owens and this guy in the past few days. Which is a shame. Can anyone from the party step up and maybe say something worthwhile?

  5. Heck I think the rest of Canada should be allowed to vote on whether to keep Quebec or not, and the required level for booting them out should only be 25%.

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