The NDP, Quebec and the constitution

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

Yesterday on a campaign swing through Quebec, Jack Layton was asked whether as prime minister he would accept the result of a Parti Québécois referendum on sovereignty. “La réponse est oui,” he said cheerfully. That seemed to me a bit short.

The Supreme Court has had quite a bit to say on the matter. Other provinces have legislation on the books requiring a referendum to ratify constitutional amendments affecting those provinces, and constitutional amendments would be required for secession to be legal. And there is, of course, the Clarity Act, which calls on the House of Commons to judge the clarity of any referendum question, and then again of the referendum result. The NDP voted in favour of the Clarity Act after Alexa McDonough learned, in very late innings in 1999, that there is real and substantial political cost outside Quebec for trying to be as insouciant about all these matters as the Parti Québécois likes to be.

But as Joan Bryden of CP pointed out last night, the NDP’s record on these matters under Jack Layton’s leadership has continued to be a bit of a mess.

I take these issues pretty damned seriously. I covered the 1995 referendum, the Supreme Court hearings on Clarity, the release of the ruling, and every step of the process that led to the passage of the Clarity Act. So I was pleased last night when Brian Topp contacted me and offered to clear all this up. Topp is a former NDP campaign director from earlier elections who has been less directly involved with the Layton campaign this year, but he told me he was speaking with the approval of the Layton campaign and for the record. After we spoke he sent me an email summary of his main points, which matches the substance of the notes I took during our phone conversation. Here is Topp’s own summary of his points, with parenthetical additions by me to help make it all more comprehensible.

I believe this all leaves Layton with pretty serious questions left to answer before he will be worthy of anybody’s trust on fundamental questions of constitutional stewardship. But I have to say that until the other national leaders get over their own games of peekaboo on the same questions, it’s hard to be sure that Layton is the worst of the lot. In particular, the silence of Stephen Harper, who is still today the Prime Minister of Canada, speaks volumes.

Topp’s summary of his remarks:

• The Quebec National Assembly has not ratified the 1982 amendments. This is an issue that will have to be addressed at some point. The time to address it is when we can be fairly sure we will succeed.

• A necessary precondition is a federal government francophone Quebecers see themselves in, working on priorities they support.

• In the 1998 reference case, the Supreme Court wrote the rulebook on any future referendum, should there be one, which hopefully there won’t be. Both Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Chretien welcomed this ruling at the time.

• Issues about whether a future question is sufficiently “clear”, should these issues ever end up in dispute, would presumably ultimately end up in front of the Court.

• Mr. Layton is not calling for repeal of the Clarity Act.

• Fewer BQ MPs in Parliament is good for Canada (including Quebec). Working to re-involve Francophone Quebecers in the governance of Canada is the kind of work Canadians hope an aspirant for PM will do. Acknowledging this issue as we are doing is respectful of the views of Francophone Quebecers, and is good nation-building.

• Michael Ignatieff said essentially the same thing in 2006.

• It’s not surprising that in the last week of a campaign our opponents are mis-stating our views on these issues.

• With regard to Guy Giorno’s tweets [the Conservative national campaign director spent part of Tuesday morning asserting on Twitter that Layton wants to make re-opening the Constitution a “priority” – pw]: Mr. Giorno had little to contribute to federal politics other than tactics when he was in the PMO, and this hasn’t changed during this election.

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