No wonder the PQ doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty

Paul Wells on the legal realities no one is talking about on the campaign trail

REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

The salvation of Quebec’s sovereignty movement has always been the reluctance of many voters and, indeed, of most political journalists to read and remember. Did you know that Jean-François Lisée, the Marois government’s minister for relations with anglophones, expects as many as 300,000 Quebecers to flee the province after a Yes vote in a referendum? Probably not. I’ve never seen anyone quote Lisée about the likelihood of a major post-referendum exodus. Yet he wrote it up in a book he published 14 years ago, and on the off chance anyone forgot to buy the book, he posted an excerpt on his blog, where it remains to this day. Lisée cites estimates between 150,000 and 300,000 departures after a Yes vote, before adding that even though it would mostly only be anglophones, it’d still hurt:

There is no doubt this exodus would be all kinds of trouble for Quebec. The anglophone community contributes to Montreal’s and Quebec’s economic success, to its progress toward a knowledge economy … and powerfully contributes to connecting us with anglophone America, our main client and partner. The departure of 100,000 or 200,000 of them would stop Montreal’s economic recovery in its tracks and aggravate Quebec’s demographic decline …

Funny how he forgot to mention any of that during the 1995 secession referendum.

Lisée goes on to suggest means that might “reduce” this exsanguination from the Quebec economy, and I’ll leave it to readers to consider whether any of them constitutes more than wishful thinking. I’ll note only that he sees in promises of protection for Quebec’s anglophone minority “an important negotiating tool at the Quebec-Canada table” during post-referendum secession negotiations. I’m afraid this escapes me. “In return for allowing us to treat our anglophone minority well, you must … allow us to treat our anglophone minority well … or it will … uh … leave and become part of your workforce.” Then they’ll really have Ottawa over a barrel.

At least Lisée acknowledges that various matters would be negotiated after a referendum, assuming, as federal law requires, that the House of Commons believed a sufficiently clear majority had voted Yes to a sufficiently clear question. It’s usually assumed, in casual conversation, that a Yes vote would be executory: that on the magic night, Quebec would become a country simply because some number of voters said it should. But, of course, secession would be a process of fundamentally uncertain outcome.

We were reminded of this yesterday when the archives of former U.S. president Bill Clinton opened long enough to disgorge the talking points that were prepared for him in anticipation of either result in the 1995 referendum. Here they are. What would a Yes vote mean? “It is up to Canadians to work out,” Clinton would have been advised to say. When would the meaning of the referendum be clear? “It will be some time.” Recognition? “Premature.” NAFTA? “Nothing is automatic.”

These are not trivial considerations. In his 1997 book Pour un Québec souverain, Jacques Parizeau admitted that a  Quebec attempting to secede would have needed international recognition if negotiations with the rest of Canada broke down. Here again, Parizeau wrote it all down for everyone to read, knowing almost nobody would bother. (Much of what follows comes from an article I wrote in 1997 for Saturday Night magazine.) “Far from being a sort of decorative element,” he writes, “the diplomatic preparation of sovereignty would have been the key to its realization if the Oui had won.” Later he calls international recognition “an essential condition” for secession. It’s an important insight: a new country exists only when the nations of the world formally welcome it among them.

But how to win international recognition of an independent Quebec? “The problem,” Parizeau writes, “kept me preoccupied for a long time.” He concluded that Canada would try to block the recognition of Quebec by other countries, “beginning with the United States,” whose approval Parizeau saw as critical. He also surmised that the U.S. “won’t be inclined to recognize [Quebec] unless it really cannot do otherwise.” So Parizeau needed a way to force the Americans to act.

In 30 years of pondering the problem, he could come up with only one solution. He called it “le Grand Jeu,” the big game or the great strategy. And it would never have worked.

“The only way to incite the United States to accept the new status of Quebec is to see to it that France recognizes it as a country within a very brief span of time. The United States could not permit that, not only for historic reasons like the Monroe Doctrine…but because to lose face in that manner, in Canada and throughout America, would be unbearable to them.”

This is not excellent logic. Fear of French recognition of a seceding Quebec would force American recognition of a seceding Quebec over Ottawa’s objections? I phoned Reed Scowen, a former Quebec government diplomat whom Parizeau mentioned in his book as having attended a Washington dinner where Parizeau hatched his grand scheme. (Scowen’s and Parizeau’s recollections of that dinner differed, in amusing ways.)

“My reading of the thing,”  Scowen told me, “is that [if the separatists won a referendum] Clinton would call up Chrétien and say, ‘Do you want us to recognize Quebec?'” And if Chrétien said no, “Clinton would say; ‘Well, okay, look, I’ve got other problems right now. Call me when you get it sorted out.'” As for France forcing Clinton’s hand, Scowen laughed.  “Whether France recognizes an independent Quebec is really no more important than whether Bangladesh recognizes an independent Quebec.”

So: U.S. recognition would be “an essential condition” of achieving secession over Ottawa’s objection. And there was no way to obtain it. Secession would happen by negotiation or it would not happen at all. And it’s hardly clear that it could happen by negotiation. Quebec’s PQ government may believe it can ignore Canada’s Constitution, but (a) it’s wrong and (b) the rest of Canada couldn’t. Secession would require constitutional amendments and therefore the consent of every provincial legislature. Alberta and British Columbia require their own referendums before ratifying any constitutional amendment. So a Quebec secession referendum would automatically trigger at least two others, on a deal whose terms are also spelled out in the Clarity Act: “division of assets and liabilities, any changes to the borders of the province, the rights, interests and territorial claims of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, and the protection of minority rights.”

Again, all of this is public knowledge, but not part of public thinking. I promise you that Pauline Marois has never spent three minutes pondering the legal reality that she could not secede without getting a Yes majority in Alberta. You don’t even have to believe the populations of other provinces would want to block Quebec’s secession to suspect the terms agreeable to those populations would be different from those Quebecers might prefer. Especially after a Yes vote in Quebec, a Yes majority would probably be really easy to whip up in Alberta. But the fine print would be all kinds of fun to read. I can’t imagine even good-faith secession negotiations leading to a deal that would pass the amending formula. (Anyone who would excitedly cite paragraph 103 of the Supreme Court’s Secession Reference to me is invited to describe a secession deal that would be acceptable to the populations of Alberta and Quebec.)

Anyway, I belabour all of this precisely to point out why Pauline Marois looks a little spooked these days whenever somebody asks her about her party’s raison d’être on the campaign trail. Negotiating, not with some vague angelic notion of reasonable Ontarians, but with Danielle Smith and Terry Glavin over the terms of deconfederation, in an attempt to stem a stampede of highly educated Quebecers that would, in Jean-François Lisée’s picturesque description, “stop Montreal’s economic recovery in its tracks,” is not super-high on most Quebecers’ to-do list for Q4 2014. How many Quebecers want to hear less campaign talk about sovereignty? Seven in 10, says today’s Léger poll. One of my favourite rules of thumb holds that a party led by a veteran campaigner should have an advantage over a party with a rookie leader, but that’s predicated on the notion that experienced leaders are reassuring. A promise of nonstop secession headache eliminates Marois’s incumbent advantage. She could, of course, promise not to hold a referendum if elected. But that would tear her party apart. I almost feel sorry for her. Just kidding.



No wonder the PQ doesn’t want to talk about sovereignty

  1. The main reason the PQ doesn’t want to talk sovereignty is because no one wants to hear about it, not because of the awkward details. Quebecers have real issues to worry about, and the PQ is doing damage control by minimizing their “raison d’être.”

    PS: It would be interesting to get Marois’s (or Lisée’s) thoughts on the separation of Crimea. Would Quebec rush to recognize an independent Crimea, putting them at odds from the rest of the west (including France)? It seems no reporter has bothered to ask (or bothered to report their answers).

  2. Does Paul really think that Albertans would have any qualms whatever about voting in favour of Quebec’s secession?

    • I think he is saying Alberta will support a yes vote, however in order to accomplish secession there has to be negotiations and Paul seems to believe Alberta and Quebec will have some difficulty agreeing on terms. I happen to agree with him on that.

    • Since he wrote “a Yes majority would probably be really easy to whip up in Alberta,” I’m guessing he doesn’t. Try actually reading before commenting — it works wonders.

  3. If we want the separation agitation to end, we need Quebec to vote for separation, and then we in Canada need to play hardball with the results. Send every federal worker that lives in Hull home permanently, with no paycheque or severance pay. Shut down every federal office in Quebec and fire every federal employee in Quebec. Stop transfer payments to the Quebec treasury in advance of the vote. Shut down access to Quebec airports via Canadian airspace. There’s no shortage of the ways we can deal with separation punitively. Then, sit back and wait.
    Quebec will become a linguistic sandspit in a sea of English and Spanish, with a shrinking economic base. There will be no compulsion for Quebec’s trading partners to do business in French. The entire raison d etre of the separatists will be undermined from within Quebec. Canada will have no reason to spend millions annually assuaging the cultural angst of the Quebecois, so we can take our language laws off the books. Those Canadians who wish to live in a French speaking society will have the choice of moving and starving, or staying put and staying economically viable. A decade in, Quebec will be begging to rejoin Confederation. By that time, the language and cultural questions will have been answered by hard economic realities.

    • Wow, what a great idea. And when Canada eventually “wins” in your proposed smackdown, it will have guaranteed itself another two hundred and fifty years of even deeper, smoldering resentment among many of its francophone citizens, not because of the outcome but because of the humiliating process.


      • Really? You do realize that the without the simple British decency that has protected the French language in Canada for the last 200 years, there would be more mating pairs of Sasquatch in Kootenay National Park than there are Francohones in the entire country, don’t you? Give your head a shake. At the turn of the 19th century, the most common European language of the Mississippi watershed was French. Most of that territory was sold to the Americans, who wisely chose to let whatever language floated to the top rule the day. Meanwhile, French became the language of what has become an economic backwater, mostly because of this silly and childish pre-occupation with language and culture amongst a people who are only rivalled by the Napolitani for their surliness and vanity.
        Without Canada’s protection, the French language will vanish in the face of overwhelming linguistic and economic pressures. Canada will no longer have a need to coddle the French and their absurd insecurities, and could then move on to better things. Once the French factor dissolves in the demographic dust, there will be no underlying reason for an independent Quebec, and her citizenry would likely then pressure their government for an economic union with either Canada or the USA. End of problem. My chequebook would then be a happier place.
        So, yeah, just leave, already.

        • I beg to differ with your half-baked historical revision. in any event, I’m confident more moderate views than yours will prevail. We don’t need a crippled economy in Quebec, inside or outside of Canada.

          • You’re 100% correct. Neither Quebec nor Canada needs Quebec’s economy to freefall. Given that, why would the Quebecois be so stupid as to drill themselves in the foot with a hollow point .45 of separation? You do understand that, if Quebec votes to leave, we Canadians have no legal, moral, or ethical obligations to support Quebec’s economy with federal jobs and transfer payments from other provinces don’t you? In fact, the federal government has moral and legal obligations to treat Quebec as it would any foreign country if it chooses to become one. You might use the Canadian dollar, but would lose any say in monetary policy, Canadian language policy, lose the right of free access (Do you really think we’re not going to want you to have your own passports, etc.?0 ad infinitum. All because you people can’t get over your hatred of all things English?
            Sorry, but that schtick got old a long time ago.
            Quebecers have a view of secession akin to a woman who tells her husband of 30 years she wants a divorce for no reason other than she’s too pretty for him, but expects him to keep makin’ the payments on the Benz, the boat, and the condo in Boca.

        • You evidently don’t have any real idea what “Quebecers (sic) view of succession” is, given that a majority of them have voted it down twice in the past and, according to most current polls, would vote it down more resoundingly now. Why don’t you stop hectoring and lecturing and just wait to see if it happens, first? We’re a long way from the sky falling so take a deep breath and waste your energy on something much more likely to occur.

          • Make that “secession” above. This feeble excuse for a comment board doesn’t permit editing.

      • So basically what you’re saying is, “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t”. Since there’s already a deep smoldering resentment that Francophone separatists can’t shake, it’s time for everyone to stop caring and move on. All the cultural grievances they’ve had to “endure” are a pittance, compared to what other minorities throughout history have gone through. It’s BECAUSE of Canada, that French culture has survived…but they keep insisting everything will be great when they leave? So let’s be realistic, and see what a separate French Quebec country will be like. The separatists humiliate themselves, and if letting them go off on their independent adventure fails…I have no doubt their resentment and sense of being victims will be even deeper. We’ve already endured 40 years of doing everything to let them protect their own culture, deciding who the REAL Quebecers are and who aren’t, saying they don’t care about Canada…waiting for their “winning conditions”. Who cares how they feel when their cause goes down the tubes.

        • Where did I say, “damned if we do, damned if we don’t.” Don’t attribute your own facile nostrum to me. For a start, it’s not all Quebecois unanimously clamouring for independence, by any stretch – it’s a minority faction. I seem to recall a time when a faction of westerners talked about a separate country. Did you vilify them the same way at the time?

          In addition, even were the situation were to get close to negotiating Quebec independence (which it won’t), there is NOTHING to be to be gained by making the other party grovel, as Greenwood advocates.

          • It’s not about making the other side grovel, per se. It’s about making the “soft separatists” fully aware of the economic, social, and cultural consequences of secession.
            If people want to vote on secession, that’s fine. But, that vote needs to be cast in the cold daylight of awareness that secession will not be anywhere as close to painless as the Pequistes like to make it sound. I’m just laying it down for you in the kind of blunt terms that our Ottawa elites are afraid to. Pull the pin on Confederation and Quebec is no more part of Canada than Nebraska is. In what fantasy world would a sovereign Quebec still have a say in Canadian public policy? The problem is that the separatists keep painting this picture that is as far removed from reality as a Michael Bay film.

          • Your analysis underestimates the political intelligence of the majority of Quebecois.

    • Because of Powers of immigration selection given by Mulroney in 1991, Bill, the sea would be French and Arabic. They accepted mostly North African French speakers since then. Thus the need to crack down on Hijabs.

  4. once again Macleans where is my “comment” ?

  5. For those of you arguing that Quebec would not even have the French language if it were not for the rest of Canada, I think you need to do a little bit more than such a superficial analysis. I think you will find there were good reasons for the English to decide they should protect the French language and culture in Quebec. I think you will also find that the French in Quebec played an important role in fighting for the British in the War of 1812 – so one might argue Canada would not even exist if it were not for the French in Quebec.

    • All well and good, but it ignores the reality of evolution. The French language only survives in Canada because of special protections that the British put in place. Without them, French would have likely disappeared from the North American landscape. The problem is that these people use the existence of a ‘culture’ that only exists because it was protected as an excuse to dismantle the very country which has nurtured their supposed culture.
      The irony of the whole situation is that those who cling to the Napoleonic dream of the (Socialist) Republic of New France, seem ignorant of the fact that modern Quebec only exists because Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territories to Jefferson and Madison so that he could wage war on England on other fronts. After vanquishing Napoleon, the British chose to extend a level of decency to the French citizens of formerly French territory that history shows us would not have been extended to British subjects had the tables been turned. Thus, Quebec.
      Because the French like to harken the separatist cause all the way back to Napoleon, then it’s only fair that we keep that discussion honest.
      Hence, my belief that, if we want to make this whole discussion disappear, our best bet is to invite Quebec to leave, treat them as the foreigners they proclaim themselves to be, and let natural economic pressures force assimilation into North American reality on them. In a decade, unilingual Francophones won’t exist, and in two decades Francophone Quebecers will be outnumbered by Spanish and English speakers. Problem solved.

      • I hope your opinion is held by a minority in the RoC, just as sovereignity aspirations are confined to a shrinking minority in Quebec. If we can restrain those like yourself on both sides, who seem intent on settling old scores and historic grievances, Canada has a chance to remain intact.

        • I’m not looking to settle old scores. I’m just painting a realistic picture of how genuine fairness actually works here. We Albertans pay a lot of taxes that get funneled into Quebec. For that, some in Quebec feel they are still an oppressed minority (Puh-leeese!) and wish to “fulfill their own destiny” without the supposed dead weight of Canada dragging them down. At the same time, the very people selling secession are banking on continued dependence on being able to access billions of dollars in equalization money. My gripe is that no one in Ottawa wishes to call these liars, well, liars. All secessionary talk has to be accompanied with the hard economic reality talk, with a side of cultural evolution thrown in for good measure.
          If the people we pay vast sums to do so, aren’t in fact doing so, then I’m not afraid to.

          • Did you feel the same way 20 or so years ago when a bunch of disgruntled Albertans were yapping about leaving Confederation or when a certain Calgary politician was squawking about putting a “firewall” around Alberta or before that, when westerners had bumper stickers urging each other to “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark”? And all that after DECADES of that province benefiting enormously from equalization payments?

  6. > The PQ itself is at a crossroads: the Party stands for one idea, separation of Quebec from Canada and this election proved, clearly, that over 75% of the electorate does not want to hear about another referendum or separation.
    > What does Quebec want? Well, it used to be protection for the French language but after almost forty years of Bill 101 the French language is secure and this happened inside Canada, too. So, what do the people of Quebec want now? They what every Canadian wants; it’s right there in our “motto” and that is Peace, Order and Good Government.
    > This means good, permanent, well-paying jobs. This means healthcare that functions better than it does at the present time in some areas, great schools, great teachers, great neighbourhoods. It means keeping public debt under control, moderating excessively and unnecessarily large governments across the country. It means welcoming good people from all over the world who want to come here and live with us as we live.
    > At this point the PQ is basically a one note symphony and few are listening. The new Liberal Party Premier Philippe Couillard intends to mend the relations with all Canada that have been so badly effected by successive PQ governments. One Canada, one citizenship, one passport for all Canadians.
    > During this campaign this writer wrote hundreds of postings to support the “idea” that is Canada and against the close-minded policies of the PQ. Good sense has prevailed.
    > Common sense has prevailed in the people of Quebec. This election has clearly shown one thing: the Quebec electorate by 75% has rejected any further talk of another referendum or separation from Canada. The French language is secure now and the people here in Quebec see this every day.
    > The new Premier Philippe Couillard has an excellent team including three doctors and three highly respected world-class economists to deal with the key to his victory: improved healthcare and improved economy. He has already stated that he intends to restore Quebec’s place in Canada and restore relations with all Canada.
    > With the strong support in this election from all regions of Quebec he is off to a strong start. With wise decisions we can expect a Liberal government not only for the next four years but a strong chance of a second term. The PQ can only offer separation and the people clearly have rejected this path.
    > One Canada, one citizenship, one passport ! Montreal, Quebec, Canada

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