Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics

Getting it over with once and for all: a national referendum

September 1997

The reason the Quebec question has been able to linger for so long without ever arrriving at a conclusion is that both populations have been allowed to keep hoping that they can get away with their ideal option, when in fact this is impossible.

Anglophone Canada's ideal option is to maintain the status quo, while still having Quebec in Canada. It is because anglophone Canadians keep hoping the whole issue will just go away and leave them alone that they keep rejecting any solutions which are proposed to them. It should be clear from the last referendum that this simply is not going to happen. Unless Quebec gets some sort of change in the Constitution which recognizes that it is different, it will eventually leave, if not in the next referendum, in some referendum after that.

Francophone Quebec's ideal option is for a huge devolution of powers to Quebec, including powers which it would hold exclusively, while still remaining a part of the Canadian federation. It is because of this hope that francophone federalists keep making never-ending demands for additional powers, and that separatists keep holding forth the possibility of some kind of special arrangement with Canada. It should be obvious from anglophone Canada's reaction that this option is impossible. Why on earth would any nation grant a province all of the privileges of membership while requiring none of the responsibilities?

In fact, there are only two possible solutions to the Quebec question:

1) A constitutional change which recognizes Quebec's differences, which results in Quebec signing the Constitution. It would be clear that no further concessions would be made to Quebec in the future.

2) A fully independent Quebec, without any support or special arrangements with Canada beyond those normally present between adjacent, friendly independent nations.

Neither of these choices is attractive to either francophone Quebecers or anglophone Canadians, but these are the only choices available in the long term. To continue to beat around the bush hoping for something better will simply prolong the agony. It is time all Canadians made a decision about which one they would rather have.

The way to do so is a national referendum. On the ballot would be these two choices, and nothing else: a) a constitutional package for Quebec, or b) an independent Quebec.

Every Canadian would have to choose one or the other. There would be no way to continue prevaricating and hoping for a more convenient solution. If a majority in both Quebec and the rest of Canada accepted the constitutional change, Canada could get on with developing as a nation. If either Quebec or the rest of Canada rejected the constitutional change, Quebec would become an independent nation, and each of the two new nations would set off on their new paths. The issue would, finally, be decided.


Of course, there are complications in the implementation of this idea. First of all, the "constitutional change" supporters would have to come up with a package that might be acceptable to both francophone Quebecers and anglophone Canadians. This would be a long and arduous process. Enough time would have to be provided for this process to reach completion - perhaps two years. But this would be acceptable given the prospect of a final result at the end of the process. This process would have to include not only the Prime Minister and Premiers (except a separatist Premier of Quebec), but also the other opinion leaders who would play a role in a referendum campaign - the leader of the Liberal Party in Quebec (even if he/she was in opposition) and leaders of the federal opposition parties. It would also, of course, have to include serious input from Canadian citizens.

As part of this process, the elite would have to openly accept the emergence of a group of anglophone Canadians who wanted Quebec to leave. This must be the secret opinion of a large number of Canadians, especially in the West, and especially if the alternative is changing the constitution for Quebec. It is quite possible that, given the direction of the constitutional proposals, some federal and provincial politicians would take up this position as well - probably the Reform party, and maybe a couple of Premiers. This would have to be accepted as well, without calling them "enemies of Canada". We would finally have a open debate about the options available.

It would be quite possible to get a sovereigntist Premier of Quebec to go along. After all, there would be a good chance of finally acheiving the sovereigntist goal, because a negative vote in either Quebec or the rest of Canada could trigger independence. It is true that they would no longer be able to pull the "association with Canada" trick, but then the federalists would no longer be able to pull the "you'll get more powers in the future" trick either. It would finally be an honest campaign.

The most serious complication is, what happens if a majority in the rest of Canada accept the constitutional changes, but Alberta and/or B.C. (or some other province) reject them? Obviously, since the changes are for Quebec, that province would have to accept them. And it would be crazy to expel Quebec from Canada because one or two provinces voted against, if the majority voted to keep Quebec. A possible answer lies in the amending formula presently in the Constitution. It calls for 7 out of 10 provinces to accept any constitutional change (this assumes none of the sections requiring unanimity would be changed, which is admittedly a possibility given Quebec's traditional veto demands). As long as six other provinces also accepted them, the change would be put through. (Obviously the present veto legislation would have to be repealed, but that can easily be done since it is merely an Act of Parliament).

This national referendum solution cuts through the equivocations and false hopes used by both sides to further their cause, and provides an opportunity for Canadians to decide on the Quebec question once and for all. But it is also a brutal and conflict-ridden process, and vulnerable to any number of complications. The alternative is a drawn-out process of compromise by all sides, which is explored elsewhere on this site.

Sept. 15, 1997

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