“To be ‘open to Quebec’ is to insist on a clear majority for secession”

by Aaron Wherry

Liberal MP Stephane Dion counsels Jack Layton.

In its opinion on the secession of Quebec, the Supreme Court of Canada mentioned the words “clear majority” at least 13 times, and also referred to “the strength of a majority.” However, the Court does not encourage us to try setting the threshold of this clear majority in advance: “it will be for the political actors to determine what constitutes ‘a clear majority on a clear question’ in the circumstances under which a future referendum vote may be taken.”




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“To be ‘open to Quebec’ is to insist on a clear majority for secession”

  1. I hope it never comes to secession, as I love Quebec and want it to remain in Canada (perhaps a holdover of getting to drive through La Belle Province and enjoy Quebec City whenever I’m travelling to the rest of Canada on the ground).  Nonetheless, I have to question the intent of the people who frame the Clarity Act in such confusing terms.  A clear majority is 50%+1.  As an outsider, I view people who quibble on the actual meaning of ‘a clear majority’ as people who want that number to be “either 50%+1, or 1 more than number of people who just voted ‘oui’, whichever number is larger.”

    Instead of trying to make the threshold of ‘oui’ voters unattainable, as the framers of the Clarity Act desire, all of us who want Quebec to remain in Canada should work towards convincing the Quebec people that ‘non’ is a better option, so that any future referendum never approaches the 50%+1 ‘oui’ number.  Not through appeasement, or bribes (sponsorship), or intimidation, but through solid inclusion in our shared political process.

    • I don’t know about that. You’re bound to have some serious problems if there’s essentially a 50:50 split on that question.

      Think about it, if three million people vote, are you seriously going to tell me that on the basis of one vote you’re good to go? That’s only 0.00003% of the vote!

      Are we going to create a new country based on 0.00003% of the vote? Of course not.

      Just changing the voting system requires a two thirds majority, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that you should need a super majority to break up a country and create a new one.

      It’s not something you do every other day after all.

      One should also consider that while referendum after referendum has been called and can be called ad infinitum into the future, it only takes one yes vote to end all that, so it would be wise to have a clear result that cannot be miscontrued in any way.

      • Phil, think about if 3,000,001 people vote and that 2,000,000 vote for secession. Unfortunately, that is less than 2/3 by your standard then the Canadian government should ignore the result and say “Sorry, Quebec that is an unclear majority. We will not negotiate terms of secession”.

        Won’t ignoring the wishes of the majority simply lead to violence if the diplomatic approach is simply ignored?

        A majority is anything more than half.
        See http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/majority

        What is unclear about 53% being more than half?

        • The debate started with the classic suggestion of 50%+1, but clearly that’s a horribly tenuous decision when millions are voting.

          So then the question is, how much is enough? Do we dispense with 50%+1 and go for, as you suggest 53%? By what logic?

          Since we can’t say 50%+1 is sufficient, it’s difficult to arrive at any other number by a direct means that isn’t arbitrary.

          So then we look at precedent. Except of course that civil seperation in this manner is actually exceptionally rare.

          So we look at other democratic changes, like say the constitution or vote systems and the like. Within that context the bar is set relatively high, usually requiring somewhere close to a super majority.

          So what logic would you employ?

          Incidentally: 2M divided by 3.000001M is 66.67% and easily equates as a super majority. Remember, one vote out of 5M is a measly 0.00002% of the vote. Anything anywhere near that amount is bound to be upheld in court.

          • The last time the Canada held a referendum regarding changing the constitution (The Charlottetown Accord) the minimum standard for it to pass was 50% + 1.

            The Wikipedia article about it suggests that it would actually have required 50% +1 in Quebec and 50% + 1 in the rest of Canada.
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlottetown_Accord

            For Canada not to negotiate terms of secession after a majority vote in a referendum on a clear question; would be in bad faith which would likely make for a nastier separation (I think civil wars are generally a bad idea).

          • I looked around and nowhere could I find a reference to the numeric requirements to pass the accord for each province, your link included.

            If anyone else has a reference by all means let me know.

            It’s quite possible you’re correct, but that said, keep in mind that not only was the referendum not legally binding, (it was essentially a complex opinion poll that no premier would ignore) but it was tabulated based on each provincial result rather than collectively.

            In order to pass, 7 out 10 provinces representing more than half the population had to agree. This is in fact a farily stringent requirement that goes far beyond 50%+1.

    • A clear majority is 50%+1

      So, hypothetically, if Quebec holds a referendum, and 10 people vote, then you figure that the votes of 6 Quebeckers is clearly sufficient to break up the country?

      • Yes.  Hypothetically.

      • If there are not 5 Quebecois who are happy being a part of Canada…. then Canada is doing something terribly wrong. It would be  wrong to prevent Quebec from seceding if there were not 5 Quebecois that wanted to stay as part of Canada.

        • I would agree with your earlier point that there are problems with setting a “clear majority” arbitrarily as or 60%+ or 66% or whatever  value other than 50%+1, but surely the participation rate in a referendum is also an important factor when considering the legitimacy of such a vote. 
          If only 6 out of 10 Quebekers voted “oui” and they where the only ones who voted, I really think the ROC would have to question Quebec’s secession.

          BTW I’m sure I  can find more than 5 Quebekers who are unhappy about about being Canadain citizens.    

          • I agree about having a minimum participation rate required. There should be clear standards for such a refeendum. My problem with the clarity act is that it leaves the decision of if a vote is valid or not to the House of Commons to decide AFTER THE FACT.

            I don’t think it is hard to state something like:
            A clear majority is more than half of total votes cast provided that is at least 25% of eligible voters.

            This gets rid of the spoiled ballot complaint, and the low voter turnout complaint (the 25% standard is only relevant if voter turnout is below 50%). Letting the rules be clarified after a vote in a highly charged political environment seems like a recipe for trouble. The House of Commons will look for any excuse to declare a majority vote as “unclear”.

          • I suspect that just like the “more than 50% of votes” idea you’d have to have participation that was also “more than 50%” or it’s not representative.

            Just a guess, but I’m suspecting representation isn’t just a matter of votes.

            For example, last time it was suggested that some groups were being prevented from voting through various underhanded means.

            If that proved true a judge may very well throw the whole deal in the can if it was a representative sample.

            No matter what politicians think they can do, they’re always subject to the other pillars of government such as the courts in anything they do.

            Our entire society is based on the three pillars of law.

          • I guess there are several parameters relevant when considering the results of (or responses to) any hypothetical Quebec referendum, including:
            What % constitutes a clear majority;
            The participation rate;
            What question was asked explicitly and what mandate does this confer on the Quebec Government.

            I totally agree with you that letting the rules be “clarified” after a vote is undesirable, but various Quebec governments have always insisted that such referenda are entirely their responsibility. I am sure that any federal government will have identified the parameters it considers necessary to legitimize any vote prior to any referendum, but making them public would only be seen as interference. 

            While it is in Canada’s interest that the ground rules are worked out before any vote, the PQ will never co-operate in this.

            As a Quebeker, I personally, would expect my Federal government to protest any attempt by Quebec (a la Parizeau) to secede at the level of 50%+1 or indeed by a margin smaller than the statistical error (1 in 10000 votes?) or the number of spoiled ballots. 

            Since the PQ will continue to campaign for independence, after any No vote, I don’t see any reason why a”clear majority” shouldn’t be defined as something between 55% and 66%, but that is never going to happen.

            I also think 25% participation is too low as a minimum, though I doubt that we would see such a turnout. Wasn’t participation over 90% in the 1995 referendum?

          • Just to clarify, by 25% of eligible voters; I meant to say the the winning side would need at least 25% of eligible voters. This would be typical if voter turnout is 50%, which seems a reasonable minimum considering turnout of recent elections.

            It is important that when making rules regarding voter turnout that voting is better than abstaining. I.e requiring minimum 60% turnout would mean that if everyone who is against stays home than 60% would have to be in favour of the motion and they would all need to go vote.

            Though considering 93% turnout in 1995 I suspect any future referendum will continue to have high turnouts.

          • I have a different understanding of the Clarity Act than yours (it leaves the decision of if a vote is valid or not to the HoC).  My understanding is that it guides the Government of Canada into negotiations “that might lead to the secession of a province from Canada, and that could consequently entail the termination of citizenship”.  As for the validity, I don’t share the view that the international community would recognize a new country and the break-up of another on the ‘strength’ of 50% plus one vote.  This is not a public opinion poll. After all, within 24 hours, a number of these voters would be dead! One vote is not a position of strength for Quebec to become a country.

          • I don’t mind this if we apply it to all of our future voting ventures.  I’d like to see the HOC sit with a 40% vacancy rate, for example, to reflect our true voting intent (yet still require 155 votes to pass any legislation).  We may as well be consistent.

          • Absolutely. Without a voter turnout that equates with your average election, I doubt very much that it would be considered legitimate.

            Not that that seems to matter to some seperatists. Even just out of sense of their own best interests though you’d think it would.

          • Voter participation is a complete red herring on this issue. The 1995 Quebec referendum had 93% voter turnout. And the 1985 Quebec referendum had 85% turnout. That is much higher than for a typical election.

          • Oh for sure. I mean who wouldn’t vote on something like that eh? LOL

  2. Mr. Dion understand the situation a thousand times better than Jack Layton ever will. Layton would be wise to listen to Dion.

    • The problem is that Jack knows it would be wise to listen to him, but he appears determined to use separatists to gain power, at any cost.

  3. I believe it is only a matter of time before the first of the new Dippers crosses the floor to join the Bloc.

    That in turn might cause a few of the “sensible” Dippers to rethink which party they want to be part of.

  4. Let’s face it. A PQ government would unilaterally declare independence the second they got one more vote than 50% in a referendum, and France would take only a few seconds more to recognize it. People in English Canada shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking anything else — Clarity Act notwithstanding.

    • I certainly hope we never see that in our lifetimes. The result would be disasterous for all sides.

      As a province under confederation they have no option but to abide by the laws set by the federal government they help elect. Anything else is treason.

      Don’t think for a moment that the Federal government is going to abandon Canadians in Quebec just because the provincial government of the day thinks it can ignore its responsibilities under confederation.

      Just the idea of it makes me shudder.

      • I agree that this is in large part a theoretical argument for now, since I don’t think a referendum is on the table for the foreseeable future.

        However, I also think English Canadians are deluding themselves if they think Canada can dictate the terms of succession to Quebec, which is hardly just another province.

        If the PQ wins a referendum with 50% plus a few votes, and then declares independence, what’s Ottawa going to do? Send in the tanks?

        There is general agreement in Quebec, even among federalists, that 50% plus one is clear enough. Is another number ever going to be agreed upon by both sides? Of course not.

        • I agree they’d do as you suggest. I also agree they wouldn’t “send in the tanks.”

          It would however create a national crisis and the blowback would be massive and multifaceted. The economic consequences alone should give separatists pause. (not that it will)

          The reason for requiring a super majority isn’t just somantics or one side trying to rule over another. It’s a matter of maintaining civil law and not destroying our first world economy.

  5. Separatists exist everywhere…in Canada and most other nations.

    Eventually we’re going to have to let them all go.

    • Sometimes ideas and/or movements pass away. Perhaps this will happen to Quebec Independence before it happens to Canada. Personally I hope so.

      • Yeah, you talk, you make reasonable accomodation, you try moral suasion and by then enough time has passed that people can discuss it rationally rather than emotionally…but in the end if they won’t be deterred then all you can do is let them go under the best and friendliest arrangement you can manage.

        It still beats civil war.

  6. ““it will be for the political actors to determine what constitutes ‘a clear majority on a clear question’ in the circumstances under which a future referendum vote may be taken.”

    That’s not clear at all, actually.

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