Accessibility links

Canada: Government Postpones Referendum Legislation

  • Carol Macivor

Ottawa, 13 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Canadian government has tabled legislation that outlines the rules for any future vote on independence by the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec.

The separatist government of Quebec has reacted by announcing that it will introduce its own legislation this week. The province's deputy premier, Bernard Landry, says only Quebec - not the federal government - has the right to decide the wording for a referendum question. Quebec's intergovernmental affairs minister, Joseph Facal, says the federal legislation is "a Soviet inspired move" and describes it as "a grave attack on the right of Quebeckers to determine their own future."

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Jean Chretien told Parliament the bill will clarify the situation: "The question has to be on the idea that Quebec will not be a province of Canada." The federal intergovernmental affairs minister, Stephane Dion, said Ottawa would never negotiate the break- up of Canada on the basis of a question that deals with more than one option, such as independence and some kind of relationship with the rest of Canada.

In the last 20 years, Quebec has held two referenda. Both times voters rejected questions on "sovereignty association" or "partnership" with the rest of Canada. The premier of the province has promised another vote within a year.

The federal government says the legislation follows a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada last August. The court said negotiations on Quebec independence could happen only "after a clear 'Yes' vote on a clear question."

There is some debate about what Ottawa would consider a "clear 'Yes' vote." Chretien has said that the result must be much higher than a 50-percent-plus-one vote but the legislation does not include a percentage.

For its part, the Quebec government says that 50 percent plus one is a majority and would be sufficient to begin negotiations.

Under the terms of the bill, the House of Commons would vote on whether the language of a referendum question is "clear." According to the legislation, that means the wording must be on "whether the province would cease to be a part of Canada" and not on whether to negotiate some kind of new "partnership."

Parliament would also decide whether there had been "a clear expression of will by a clear majority." It also says that secession would require a constitutional amendment and negotiations involving the government of Canada as well as the other nine provinces and three territories.

The French-speaking separatists maintain their culture and language is threatened by Canada's English-speaking majority and the dominance of English in North America. Efforts to ensure the protection of their rights have deep roots.

The French arrived in Canada before the English several hundred years ago but lost control of what was then called "New France" to the British in a brief battle near Quebec City in 1759. Canada became a confederation in 1867 with the emphasis on a strong central government. In the middle of this century, Ottawa started delegating more power to the provinces. By the 1960s, Quebec had assumed a more prominent economic and cultural position in Canada which resulted in the enactment of a law making English and French the country's two official languages.

Early in the 1970s, a group of radical separatists - the Quebec Liberation Front - began calling for independence. In a series of violent incidents, they murdered the province's justice minister and kidnapped the British High Commissioner. Ottawa responded by invoking the War Measures Act - basically, establishing martial law in the province which permitted police to arrest citizens without warrants.

Quebec elected its first separatist government in 1976 on the promise of spearheading a move to secede. It held a referendum on sovereignty association in 1980 which was soundly defeated. Before another vote, Ottawa tried to win Quebec approval by suggesting constitutional changes which would describe the province as a "distinct society" within Canada. That effort failed when one province refused to sign the deal.

That led, in 1995, to a second referendum in Quebec. The separatist side lost by a very narrow margin - less than one percentage point. When the current Parti Quebecois government was campaigning for election in 1998, Premier Lucien Bouchard promised a new vote but only under what he called "winning conditions." When he did not received the landslide victory many had predicted, Bouchard said he would focus on good government at the beginning of his term and see what the mood for a referendum was like later on.

By introducing its legislation, the Canadian government is setting the stage for a heated debate over the Quebec government's promised referendum. And Chretien has said he would like to end the discussion once and for all.