Stephen Harper’s Quebec lieutenant went public with his personal belief Monday that a 50% plus one referendum majority should be all the province needs to legally separate, even as his government heads to court to stop that very thing from happening.
“I am a proud Quebecer. I’ve already said that I am at ease with [50% plus one],” Denis Lebel, Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, told an interviewer for TVA Nouvelles in an interview broadcast Monday.
Mr. Lebel, who is the representative for the staunchly French-speaking riding of Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, repeated the sentiment in another Monday interview with Montreal radio station 98.5 FM.
“So 50% plus one, that’s a clear result for you ?” asked a host, to which the minister replied, “we always said we would leave it to Quebecers to decide, but yes, that’s it for me.”
The comments were made as Mr. Lebel was stumping to defend federal efforts to oppose Law 99, a 2000 Quebec law asserting the right to separate on a 50% plus one vote, and that no “other parliament or government” could obstruct the “democratic will of the Québec people to determine its own future.”
Written and passed by the government of Lucien Bouchard, Law 99 was designed to stand in direct opposition to the Clarity Act, a Chretien-era bill denying the right of any province to break up the federation without first obtaining both a “clear majority” on a clear referendum question and an amendment to the Constitution.
Last week, the Harper government added its support to a 12-year-old Quebec Superior Court court challenge against the law launched by Keith Henderson, a Quebec anglophone rights advocate.
“Secession, to be lawful, would require a constitutional amendment,” the attorney general of Canada wrote in a filing.
Over the weekend, news of the intervention elicited venomous declarations from the Parti Quebecois, with Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Alexandre Cloutier calling it “underhanded and a direct attack” and Quebec Premier Pauline Marois asserting that only Quebec “has the power to choose its destiny.”
“We are involved because it is a question of Canadian unity,” said Mr. Lebel in a Sunday statement defending the federal government’s intervention. “It is completely normal for the federal government to defend Canadian laws.”
On Monday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lebel stressed that his views on 50% plus one were “his personal view as a Quebecer, and not that of the government.”
“There’s a personal [position], and then there’s the government’s position,” said Michèle-Jamali Paquette, Mr. Lebel’s director of communications.
She added in an email, “all hypothetical scenarios set aside, no one wants another referendum.”
Although the NDP shares Mr. Lebel’s position on 50% plus one, the party lashed out at what it dubbed the inconsistency of the Conservative position on Quebec independence.
The Tories have been “all over the map” on this issue, an NDP source who did not wish to be named wrote in a Monday email to the National Post.
Liberal MP Stephane Dion, the author of the Clarity Act, on Monday spoke to Quebec media and accused Mr. Lebel of “saying one thing in French and another thing in English.”
It is not the first time Mr. Lebel has defied the official government line on an issue of Quebec politics.
In September, the prime minister publicly opposed Quebec’s proposed Charter of Values, a contentious plan to ban religious clothing in public-sector workplaces.
Mr. Harper expressed his wish that the “common sense” of Quebecers would prevail in defeating the legislation — and threatened to challenge the Charter in court if it became law.
Mr. Lebel, meanwhile, was comparatively nonchalant.
“There’s nothing that upsets me in there,” the minister told The Canadian Press in late September.