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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