The Supreme Court of Canada, in fine Canadian fashion, managed to accomplish what many people didn’t think was possible—issue a ruling on three questions probing the legality of Quebec’s unilateral separation that both sides could claim as a victory.
But whether you view the nine justices as astute diplomats, or timid fence-sitters, about the only think clear from last week’s ruling is that it’s anything but clear.
Yes, the Supreme Court ruled that Quebec could not unilaterally separate under the Canadian constitution or international law. Wonderful. But it also ruled that the rest of Canada must negotiate with Quebec if a “clear” majority of Quebecers vote yes on a “clear” question.
The problem, of course, is just what constitutes a “clear” majority and a “clear” question—and naturally both sides have been quick to put their own spins on this that’s left ordinary Canadians feeling that nothing has really changed.
The Chrétien government is looking at two-thirds as a “clear” majority, not the 50 percent-plus-one that the Parti Quebecois has always maintained. What’s ironic about that, though, is that a margin of less than one percent was good enough for the “no” side to declare victory in the 1995 referendum.
(Couldn’t it be said that there wasn’t a “clear” majority of Quebecers who did not want then Premier Jacques Parizeau to start sovereignty talks with Ottawa).
As for coming up with a “clear” question, well good luck. Does that mean “Do you want to separate from Canada? Yes or No”—or does “Do you want the Quebec government to begin sovereignty negotiations with the rest of Canada? Yes or No” fit the bill. At the same time, there’s no indication as to who will come up with the question, nor what happens if Ottawa’s definition of a “clear” question differs from that of the Quebec government.
There’s more. The court left open what happens if Ottawa and the rest of Canada can’t negotiate an acceptable settlement with Quebec in six months or a year or even two years after a “yes” vote in a referendum. Can Quebec then separate unilaterally (meaning it has no real reason to negotiate with any real earnest), or is that when Ottawa calls in the army?
Yes, last week’s ruling didn’t give the Parti Quebecois any ammunition to whip up separatist fervour across the province. By leaving open that one big “BUT,” though, the nine justices simply acknowledged what we already knew—it’s up to politicians to solve our unity debate.
Unfortunately, we also know where that’s gotten us in the past, and is why the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t give us much to cheer about after all.