Liberal leader Jean Charest has set off a furor with his off-the-cuff remark that "I don't believe Quebec would be indivisible" in the event of a Yes vote on sovereignty. Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair deplored his lack of judgment. And Action democratique du Quebec leader Mario Dumont huffed: "If that's what he really thinks, he's not qualified to lead Quebec."
Whatever this particular premier thinks of partition is irrelevant. If there is ever a Yes vote on sovereignty, the federalist Charest would by definition be out of power. His views on partition don't much matter.
What does matter is whether partition is legally and politically feasible. It is, and it became even more so last fall. I refer to the House of Commons resolution that says the "Quebecois" form a "nation" within Canada.
The politicians and pundits who this week are livid over Charest's inconsequential comment are the same ones who were so euphoric over the vote for nationhood on Nov. 27 that they completely ignored its implications. As I wrote a few days after the vote, the resolution is more than just a semantic gift to nationalists. It is also a potential Trojan horse that facilitates partition.
That's because of that key word, "Quebecois," which appears in both the French and English versions of the resolution. In French, the word is commonly taken to mean everyone who lives on Quebec soil. To anglophones, however, the term has ethnic overtones. They often use it to refer to Quebec's old-stock, or pure laine, francophone residents.
The Harper government's Quebec lieutenant, Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon, has said the word alludes to all people residing in Quebec. Far more significantly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has refused to define it.
Nonetheless, we have a good idea of what it means to him. In the past, he had made several statements that he has never renounced.
During a Commons debate in 1995, Harper - then a Reform MP - said: "Obviously, given the ethnic and socio-cultural makeup of modern Quebec society, only the pure laine Quebecois could arguably be considered a people." He went on the say that "if the Quebecois pure laine are a people and they have a right to secede, they could not claim the right to territorial integrity."
In other words, communities that contain a majority of federalists who are not old-stock francophones could, in the event of a vote in favour of sovereignty, argue that they are not part of the Quebecois nation. That could strengthen their claim to remain part of Canada.
As well, Harper has voiced support for partition as recently as 2004. The federal Liberals' Stephane Dion, leader of the only other party likely to be in power in Ottawa at the time of any negotiations on secession, has in the past also expressed sympathy.
Both leaders know that raising the issue now would be counterproductive, igniting the sort of heat that Charest is now getting.
Instead of venting outrage over Charest's all-too-candid observation, Boisclair and Dumont might want to look themselves in the mirror. They let Harper use the word "nation" as successfully as "abracadabra" to put them into such a giddy state last fall that they never knew what was happening.
The important question is how a Canadian government might actually respond to claims for partition in the event of negotiations with Quebec over secession. First Nations' communities and anglo municipalities would be the likely claimants.
Harper's manoeuvre is one of three developments helpful to the partition cause since the last referendum. One is the federal Clarity Act of 2000, which indicated Quebec's borders could be negotiated. The other development is the demerger of some Montreal suburbs in 2006. Although partition was never an issue at the time of the demergers, non-francophone suburbs' repossession of legal status as municipalities would free their hand to petition Canada.
True, Ottawa might well use these municipalities only as a bargaining chip. But they would be a decidedly valuable chip at that. The vehemence of Boisclair and Dumont's attacks on Charest show the depth of nationalists' belief in the sanctity of Quebec's borders.
Harper's nation resolution opened the partition can of worms
Clarity Act, demergers comfort federalists who would want to separate from Quebec