Throughout the 2012 Quebec Election, Anglophones and Francophones alike must have wondered what they would do if the Parti Québécois formed the next government. Numerous stories circulated about Quebecers putting off home ownership for fear of another referendum and an ensuing housing-market crash. Some said they would leave simply because they were fed up with separatist threats. But rest assured, Quebec independence is very unlikely in any circumstance.
Pauline Marois, the Premier-Elect of Quebec, had roused fears after suggesting that if 850,000 Quebecers –or 15% of the population– signed a petition demanding a referendum on sovereignty, she would call one.
She could easily launch a referendum, but that’s where the ease stops. Canada has learned its lesson from the 1995 referendum that almost saw the country split apart. Numerous laws, a Supreme Court reference, and existing constitutional requirements make it almost impossible for Quebec to separate now.
Mme. Marois has said she would call a referendum tomorrow morning if she could. That’s a big IF, considering the latest polls show the support for a sovereign Quebec dwindling to around 28%. Before calling a referendum, she would need to rally the troops and double that number.
Were she able to get support for a referendum at around 50% she would need to settle on terms for a referendum, including what question to ask Quebecers. This is where the Clarity Act comes in, a piece of legislation passed by Jean Chrétien’s government in 1999. The act gives the House of Commons the power to override the results of a referendum if Parliament feels the referendum question was not clear to the population, including if secession from Canada wasn’t directly mentioned. This is the first firewall preventing Marois from getting her Republic of Quebec.
If the question is deemed clear, the House of Commons can still reject the results of a referendum if they believe that the vote for sovereignty lacked a clear majority. What constitutes a “clear majority” is completely subjective and the Clarity Act does not state a specific percentage. This clause was added to address fears that only a minute percentage of the population could decide the fate of Quebec, similar to 1995. It also puts enormous pressure on the federal government to act in favour of Canadian unity despite upsetting Quebec.
Now, assuming Pauline Marois had enough support and her question was clear and she won a clear majority, would she be in the clear? No. The Constitution does not recognize the legal power of a referendum and thus it is not binding. The Constitution also does not provide a mechanism for dealing with the secession of a province and so it could only happen through an amendment. To propose a constitutional amendment declaring the secession of Quebec, the province would need to get the support of the five Canadian regions – Quebec (obviously), Ontario, British Columbia, two Prairie provinces with fifty percent support and two Atlantic provinces with fifty percent support – which gives any of the four non-Quebec regions veto power on Quebec’s future. Since none of the regions have anything to gain from Quebec independence – and Atlantic has much to lose– they’re unlikely to dedicate much time to such a cause.
Assuming the five regions did comply with Quebec’s demands, constitutional negotiations would then begin between the provinces and the federal government, but they could break off at any time. If the negotiations were finalized, the vote would go back to the people.
In the final constitutional vote, the proposed amendment would need the support of seven provinces and fifty percent of the Canadian population. It goes without saying that this too is extremely unlikely.
If all the stars line up perfectly, Quebec could one day separate. The process would be extremely long, full of bureaucratic hurdles, and could get very ugly when Ottawa and the rest of Canada inevitably use their constitutional and legislative powers to prevent de-unification.
In any case, it is pointless to talk about a referendum at this time. The PQ only won a slim minority in the September 4 election, narrowly beating the Liberal by 0.7% of the popular vote. The PQ does not currently have a mandate to launch a referendum and if Mme. Marois tried to, the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec would send us into another election to prevent her.
So relax and put your suitcases down, Quebec isn’t going anywhere.