Don’t worry, Ignatieff, Quebec isn’t leaving

Le prophète de Gatineau...

Michael Ignatieff got it dead wrong. Carried away by the force and beauty of his own rhetoric, the eminent egghead landed on the conclusion that, yes, Quebec and Scotland would eventually separate.
Ignatieff: “Well, the Canadian example seems to show that you can devolve power down and get those damn Tories in London out of your hair and run your own affairs, short of being an independent country. And it’s a kind of way station. You stop there for a while. But I think the logic eventually is independence — full independence.
BBC interviewer: “For Quebec as for Scotland?”
Ignatieff: “I think eventually that’s where it goes.”
Shock and outrage among federalists. The former leader of the official opposition thinks that Quebec must eventually secede! The embattled separatists celebrate. But are Ignatieff’s speculations to be taken seriously when he spins out the consequences of Scotland’s planned referendum on its union with England?
Hardly. To put it bluntly, Ignatieff misrepresented Canada’s history since the Quiet Revolution: “The Canadian experience was, even when a referendum for independence for Quebec was lost in 1980, it set in train a huge process of constitutional change in Canada. To keep the show on the road we had to change the game, and I have a feeling that even if the referendum was lost in Scotland — that is, if most Scots voted against independence — there would still be a massive amount of devolution that would follow, a massive change in the way Scotland relates to the United Kingdom.”
This, he said, had been the Canadian experience. But, in fact, the Quiet Revolution began in 1960, not 1980. Holding a referendum only entered the Parti Québécois’ program in the mid-1970s. Previously, secession was presumed to follow electing a majority Parti Québécois government. And the 1980 referendum, far from precipitating a general devolution of powers to Quebec, led to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982 with a Charter of Rights that henceforth limited the powers of the Quebec government to secede from Canada. Separatism went into remission. When it revived, in the late 1980s, it was not given new life by a new referendum but by Brian Mulroney’s rash attempt to reopen the Constitution.
Ignatieff similarly distorts the significance of the 1995 referendum: “We had a near-death experience in 1995, the second referendum in 1995. Sixty thousand votes another way would have turned Quebec into another country. What we learned from that was that the way to keep the show on the road is pretty radical devolution. And, effectively Quebec is master in their own house.”
Had Jacques Parizeau gained that bare majority in 1995, he was determined to declare Quebec’s sovereignty. But would Quebec have become an independent country? Most unlikely. Jean Chrétien has made clear that, as prime minister, he would have resisted the overthrow of the Constitution. And the 1982 Constitution made it certain that the secession of Quebec could only take place legally with the consent of the two houses of Parliament and the other provinces.
Ignatieff has simplified history outrageously. His prediction that the clamour for more devolution of powers will lead inexorably to eventual secession flies in the face of several realities. First, Canada is a federation, unlike the United Kingdom. Their Parliament is supreme; ours is constrained by a written Constitution that spells out the separation of powers between the federal government and the provinces. A province can only obtain new jurisdictions (including independence) by fulfilling the conditions set in the Constitution and explicated by the Supreme Court in its 1998 decision in the reference on Quebec’s secession. Secession in Canada would entail inextricable difficulties inconceivable in the U.K., including above all the territorial rights of the aboriginal populations.
Ignatieff reaches a very pessimistic evaluation of the state of the country: “The problem here is that we don’t have anything to say to each other anymore. There’s a kind of contract of mutual indifference which is very striking for someone of my generation.” And yet, year after year, polls show that upwards of 80 per cent of Quebecers consider Canada the world’s best country. The end is not at hand.
William Johnson is an author and veteran journalist who has specialized in Quebec affairs.

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