Canada and Quebec have always been in conflict from the confederation of 1867 to the Supreme court judgement on the secession of Quebec in 1998. Quebec faces several challenges in terms of constitutional relations with the rest of Canada. Quebec is seeking a special status to preserve and protect its culture and language, while the rest of English-speaking Canada accepts the view of provincial equality. There have been attempts to recognize Quebec’s concerns through constitutional amendments, but these attempts have not lived up to Quebec’s expectations and for the most parts have failed. Quebec has threatened Canada throughout history with separation from Canada. These threats have not been ignored, the rest of Canada realizes the devastating impact economically and politically if Quebec did separate but they cannot reach a compromise. Canada has as tried to encourage Quebec not to separate from Canada. In 1995 Quebec held its second referendum on sovereignly and the separatists narrowly lost the province wide. The province brought the case to the Supreme court of Canada to rule on the legal guidelines of unilateral secession under Canadian and international law, in the end some say the federalists (those not wanting to separate) came out on top. In this essay I will discuss the various historical attempts made by government to keep Quebec a part of Canada. I will also attempt to explain the impact of the Supreme Court Ruling on the Quebec secession. Many argue that the federalist won in the decision but that statement is debatable. Both Quebec and the rest of Canada won in the ruling. I believe that English Canadians should spend some time getting to know their French neighbors and vice versa. Lets get started with the never ending tale of Quebec quest for sovereignty. Quebec is Canada only French speaking province. The conflict Canada and Quebec’s search for sovereignty started in the early days of American settlement. In the 1800s the united colonies of Canada, Canada east (French speaking) and Canada west ( English speaking) was in constitutional deadlock. The only way out of this deadlock was to separate or to bring more colonies into confederation.
There was much immigration into both Canada east and Canada west, these new immigrants were primarily English which added to the problem of linguistics groups. As Canada east grew in population “it remained tied to Canada east by a constitution that shared power equally between the two.” The arrangement was becoming ever more difficult because of the difference in sizes and political power between the two Canada. English speakers called for “representation by population, in other words, each group of people deserved political power that was equivalent to its proportion to the population.” While the French language survived, it had gone from majority to minority of the population due to immigration.
The confederation agreement of 1867, which included Nova Scotia and New Brunswick gave both the French and English what they wanted without resorting to separation. The French people of Canada east had more control over their culture , were as close to independence as possible at the time. They also gained freedom from domination of the majority (English speakers of Canada west). The English people gained more representation in Ottawa, and more control over their provincial government. “The union of 1867 was thus really a separation as far as the two Canada were concerned.” Although both Quebec (Canada east) and Ontario (Canada west) was still governed by the same federal government they were free to govern themselves in all areas under provincial jurisdiction.
In the 1960s a “dramatic change of values and attitudes, especially toward the state, a new collective self confidence, and a new brand of Nationalism” occurred in Quebec this change was termed the quiet revolution of Quebec. According to Conway this quiet revolution occurred because of the sudden influx of people from rural to urban areas, and a increase of population during the 1940’s and 1950’s. This was a time when Quebec started seeking special status’ and wanted international recognition. Quebec began to threaten Canada with separation because they thought Canada was not responding fast enough to the demands. Canada’s response was by making the Canadian public sector bilingual , allowing Quebec to opt out of 1964 Canada pension plan as a means of economic development., and permitting Quebec to make international relations with France.
During this Quiet Revolution the government, headed by Jean Lesage, took over many functions of the church ( i.e education, health, labor laws, and social welfare). The Lesage government reformed many legislatures, put pressure on Ottawa to put more federal grants into the province without any conditions attached, give the provinces a grater amount of the shared taxes, and give the province more power . This Quiet Revolution in Quebec encouraged Canada to put even greater attention on constitutional change which led to the 1970 Victoria Charter, the Constitution Act of 1982, the 1987 Meech lake Accord, and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord and two referendums on Quebec sovereignty.
With the start of a separatist movement in Quebec, Canadians knew that Quebec separation was a real threat and consequently tried to accommodate Quebec with the Victorian Charter. The charter was a “constitutional renewal, including pariation, language charter, an amending formula and an opting out provision.”. Quebec’s premier at the time first agreed to the Victorian Charter but later refused it because of the nationalist public opinion in Quebec. Quebers argued there was no special status given to Quebec, not enough new powers given to them and finally because there was no guaranteed veto offered to Quebec through the Victoria Charter.
The next historical step of Quebec’s quest for sovereignty was proposed by the Parti Qubcois government, Quebec’s first referendum in 1980. The P Q government asked the people of Quebec to vote on “Sovereignty-Association” with the federal government. This would mean that Quebec would be a sovereign state, but with continued economic links to the rest of Canada.
Quebec’s first referendum was crushed by a margin 60% to 40%.The federal government still recognized that there was still the threat of separation, and knew the economic and political consequences if Quebec did separate. The federal government responded by trying to negotiate another deal’ which is now know as the Constitution Act 1982. The Act did include some language laws a new amending formula, Charter of Rights and freedoms, protection of civil liberties just to name a few. However the act did not recognize Quebec as a distinct society and as a result Quebec refused to sign. All other provinces signed except Quebec, but Quebec is still legally bounded by the Constitution Act in many areas.
When Brian Mulroney came into power in 1984 he wanted Quebec to be a part of Canada and encouraged Quebec to rejoin the Canadian constitution by drawing up a document called the Meech Lake Accord which tried to take into account Quebec’s conditions for rejoing the constitution. The accord recognized Quebec as a distinct society, guaranteed a increase of powers in matters of immigration, it contained a opting out principle with compensation of national programs within provincial jurisdiction , recognized Quebec’s right of veto on constitutional amendments, and finally allowed participation on appointment of supreme court judges. Initially all provinces agreed, but in order for it to become law the constitutional amending procedures had to be followed. This meant there was a three year time limit for the unanimous approval of the federal and provincial government. The time limit was not met due to objections raised by the provinces and the accord was pronounced dead in 1990.
Following the death of the Meech Lake Accord many people believed that separation of Quebec from Canada was imminent. The federal government set up the Charlottetown Accord, it was a package consisting of a 28-point constitutional proposals called Shaping Canada Future Together. All the premiers of the provinces signed but when there was a national vote the people voted “no”. According to Dyck Quebec argued they did not get enough new powers and the people outside of Quebec argued Quebec got too many new powers. Even though the referendum was not legally binding government did not bother to brig the package to the legislature for ratification. With this last failure no more attempts at constitutional change for quite sometime. The people of Canada were growing tired of the issue on constitutional change and elected the liberal government on the promise that they would put the issue of constitutional change aside . In Quebec the opposite occurred, Quebec elected Parti Qubcois, a separatist party.
In 1995 the leaders of Parti Qubcois, the Bloc Qubcois, and Parti Action Democratique joined forces and signed an agreement to ask the people of Quebec to vote on Quebec’s 2nd referendum. They asked if people wanted Quebec to become sovereign, along with a offer to negotiate a new partnership between Canada and a independent Quebec. If a deal could not be made with Canada within a year “Quebec would unilaterally declare its sovereignty and expect recognition by other states, anticipating continued membership in the north American Free Trade Agreement”. The liberal government tried to convince the people of Quebec to vote no to separation on a promise of changes in areas of “recognizing Quebec as a distinct society, some kind of veto over constitutional aments and some kind of decentralization of powers from Ottawa”.
The separatist narrowly lost the province wide referendum on the issue with 49% of the votes. With this narrow victory the federal government whipped into action and passed a bill through the house of commons that recognized Quebec as a distinct society and gave the province a type of constitutional veto to convince Quebec that Canada is a great place to live. The federal government also asked the Supreme Court of Canada to decide on three questions pertaining to the legal and constitutional issues of Quebec separation from Canada to illustrate to Quebec that sovereignty-association’ was not viable, and that Canada would not accept a unilateral decision on independence.
It took the Supreme Court almost two years before it rendered a judgement , during that time the federal and provincial government came up with what is called the Calgary Declaration to once again try to include Quebec in the constitution. All of the premiers (except Quebec) unanimously agreed on a new framework’ to open the doors on Canadian Unity. Quebec rejected the Calgary Declaration because it did not recognize Quebec as a people and a nation. The Calgary declaration was declared dead.
Finally in August 1998 the Supreme Court of Canada delivered a important decision on the Canadian constitution. The three Questions that the federal government gave to the court in reference to quebec secession. were: 1)Does the Canadian constitution allow the province of Quebec to unilaterally secede 2)Does international law allow unilateral secession 3)if there was conflict between domestic and international law which would take “precedence” in Canada.
On the first question the court said secession of a province under the constitution could not be achieved unilaterally “within the existing constitutional framework”.
On the second question, it ruled that the province did not constitute a “people” and “a right to secession only arises under the principle of self-determination of people at international law where a people is governed as part of a colonial empire…subject to alienation, subjugation, domination or exploitation…deny any meaningful existence of its right to self determination within the state of which it forms a part” . In other words Quebec does not constitute “a people” therefore could not unilaterally secede under international law
In response to the third question, the court ruled there was no conflict between international and domestic law.
At face value it looks as though the federalists have won with this court ruling, but if you dig down into the ruling there is some support for the separatist. There is no doubt that the federalists hold the upper hand with this ruling because Quebec under the Canadian constitution can not unilaterally secede, but in the same breath the judges ruled that if a majority of the people in Quebec want to secede, the rest of Canada would have to negotiate the terms of the secession as though it were an amendment to the constitution. The court did not rule out another referendum. The courts ruled that a clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favor of secession would give democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative which all of the other participants in confederation would have to recognize.
Although the courts did maintain that “Quebecers have the democratic right to determine their own destiny as long as they do so with in the rule of law”. The ruling does make it harder for Quebec to become an independent nation. It is evident in the history of Canada and Quebec that a agreement on terms of separation of Quebec from Canada would be hard to reach. Every attempt that Canada has made to amend the constitution Quebec has rejected. It is clear that Quebec and Canada have a hard time trying to compromise. If Quebec did separate from Canada it may leave it’s conflicts with Canada behind but would have to face the conflict between the pro and anti separatist within Quebec. “The court has laid out the first basic constitutional ground rules for the nations breakup , a largely political process that it warned will be doomed to end in an impasse”.
Canadians are tired of this issue of separatism. As one author called it “the neverendum referendum”. People have lost interest and have demonstrated this by electing the liberal government on the basis of putting this issue on the back burner. While the separatist movement is still alive, it is not to the same degree it once was. In the 1998 election PQ (separatist) and the liberals (federalists) tied, both getting 43% of the vote. The PQ got more seats because of the way the votes are distributed. The PQ leader Lucien Bouchard stated prior to the election campaign that he would not hold another referendum on Quebec sovereignty if the people of Quebec didn’t want one. And there has not been another referendum since so I guess queckerdo not wantone.
Whether Quebec will separate from Canada is difficult to see, however we must question does Quebec really want to separate from Canada? Each time Quebec has held a referendum it always included a clause to maintain some type of relations with Canada. I wonder what would be the majority vote be if there was to be no relations with Canada once Quebec became a independent state? My guess is Quebec would not be separating. According to Conway in his book Debts to Pay’ he claims that we owe it to Quebec to preserve the language and culture because throughout history we English Canadians have treated French speaking Canadians harshly and because they are unique in their language and culture. He believes it’s time for English speaking Canadians to step up to the plate and give Quebec what they deserve. I’m not quite sure if I agree with him that we owe the French speaking Canadians , however I am sure that all Canadians have to work together to make Canada a better place to live.