OTTAWA – The Bloc Quebecois has lost its bid to rewrite the rules for Quebec secession — but not before inflicting considerable political damage on the NDP.
A Bloc motion calling for repeal of the Clarity Act was easily defeated late Wednesday by a vote of 283-5, with Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals all opposing it.
There was no surprise in the motion’s crushing defeat, but the Bloc succeeded in exposing divisions within the NDP — the BQ’s arch-rivals in Quebec — and prompted New Democrat MP Claude Patry to defect to the Bloc last week.
The motion also shone a spotlight on the NDP’s controversial position on secession and provided fodder to federalist rivals to accuse the NDP of pandering to separatists.
The Clarity Act stipulates that an undefined clear majority of Quebecers would have to vote Yes on a clear question to secede before the federal government would agree to negotiate terms of a national divorce.
In response to the Bloc motion to repeal the act, the NDP proposed its own “unity bill” to replace Clarity. It says that a bare majority of 50 per cent plus one vote would be sufficient to trigger negotiations on secession, provided that the referendum question was clear and there were no irregularities in the vote.
Patry, who voted for Quebec independence in the 1980 and 1995 referendums, maintained last week that both Clarity and the NDP bill interfere with the right of Quebecers to determine their own future.
Prior to the vote on the Bloc motion, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair insisted his Quebec-dominated caucus is united behind the unity bill, which is based on the party’s longstanding Sherbrooke Declaration on which all candidates, including Patry, ran in the 2011 election.
“The NDP is a federalist party. The Sherbrooke Declaration is the foundation of our political offer on these important issues,” he said following a morning caucus meeting.
“We just had an extraordinarily positive, upbeat, optimistic, very united caucus meeting and there is no problem with that in our caucus.”
While the Bloc believes Quebecers should decide their fate “and nobody else has a word to say about it,” Mulcair said it’s healthy in a democracy to clarify the rules for secession.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the whole episode has highlighted the “total incoherence” of the NDP’s position on secession. He said the unity bill is an attempt to “square the circle” of a party that professes to be federalist but which recruited candidates in Quebec, like Patry, who had previously supported sovereignty for the province.
The result, said Rae, is a “pretty explosive cocktail” that has turned the NDP into a “very, very, very fragile” coalition.
Montreal Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, who has rarely been in the House of Commons since announcing his front-running bid for the party leadership last October, made a point of showing up Wednesday to vote against the Bloc motion.
“The Clarity Act is something that nationalists and sovereigntists in Quebec bring up as a way of wedging and bringing up divisions again,” Trudeau said after the vote.
“But in Quebec and across the country, it’s heralded as a good piece of legislation that makes it a little more difficult to break up this country and I think that’s something everyone can agree with.”
He predicted the NDP will have trouble selling its members on the unity bill, saying he’s encountered few New Democrats in western Canada, for instance, who want to “make it easier” to break up the country.
Bloc Leader Daniel Paille, meanwhile, depicted his five MPs as the only ones willing to stand up for Quebecers.
“For us, it’s very important to say to this House of Commons … that when Quebecers will be ready to ask another time the question about their sovereignty, we will decide at home.”