Jean Charest as Captain Canada? Don't make me laugh. Charest is the spiritual son of Brian Mulroney and the political heir of the Liberal Party of Quebec. Both followed the same cardinal principle: they would have fierce pillow fights with the separatists, but never, ever undermine separatism.
If Premier Charest really wanted to undermine separatism, he could do it in short order. He need only embrace the Supreme Court of Canada for its 1998 advisory opinion on the unilateral secession of Quebec that found Quebec had no right to secession under either international law or Canadian law. He could explain the stringent conditions that, the court said, must be met if Quebec were to separate legally, rather than by revolution.
The court warned: "Of course, secession would give rise to many issues of great complexity and difficulty. These would have to be resolved within the overall framework of the rule of law, thereby assuring Canadians resident in Quebec and elsewhere a measure of stability in what would likely be a period of considerable upheaval and uncertainty. Nobody seriously suggests that our national existence, seamless in so many aspects, could be effortlessly separated along what are now the provincial boundaries of Quebec."
But that is precisely what Charest and every previous Quebec Liberal leader since Jean Lesage have constantly defended: a painless secession, outside the rule of law. In 1980, when Claude Ryan was Liberal leader, the party adopted this policy, which has been reaffirmed ever since: "The Liberal Party of Quebec recognizes the right of Quebec to define its internal constitution and to express freely its will to maintain the Canadian federal union or to put an end to it. It recognizes, in a word, the right of the Quebec people to self-determine freely its own future."
In 1991, when support for separatism reached historic heights in Quebec, Mr. Mulroney had his party's convention adopt a resolution that affirmed "Quebec's right to self-determination." It was generally taken as affirming Quebec's right to secede unilaterally.
The Supreme Court, when it delivered its answers to the reference on Quebec's secession, should have put an end to such illusions. Secession, the court made absolutely clear, is not a right, not a given, but an outcome very difficult to achieve: "Negotiations would need to address the interests of the other provinces, the federal government and Quebec and indeed the rights of all Canadians, both within and outside Quebec, and specifically, the rights of minorities." And if negotiations understandably failed, the court added, this would not confer on Quebec the right to secede: "In the circumstances, negotiations following such a referendum would undoubtedly be difficult. While the negotiators would have to contemplate the possibility of secession, there would be no absolute legal entitlement to it and no assumption that an agreement reconciling all relevant rights and obligations would actually be reached. It is foreseeable that even negotiations carried out in conformity with the underlying constitutional principles could reach an impasse. We need not speculate here as to what would then transpire. Under the Constitution, secession requires that an amendment be negotiated."
Previous Liberal leaders could perhaps be excused on the grounds that they did not know the law before the Supreme Court spoke. Charest has no such excuse. He opposed the reference to the Supreme Court when it was belatedly made in 1996. During the 1997 election campaign, as Progressive Conservative leader, he promised if elected to rescind the reference. In 1998, he voted for a Bloc Quebecois motion that stated: "The House recognizes the Quebec consensus by virtue of which it belongs to the Quebec people, and to it alone, to freely decide on its future." Then, when the court brought down its answers, he publicly professed that the court had left the issue of secession in "a black hole." His acrobatics meant one thing: he was protecting secession against the Constitution, against the rule of law and the authoritative judgment of the court.
When Charest was interviewed recently on TV5-France, he agreed with his interviewer, who suggested that Quebec had the means to be a nation in its own right. "Yes, we have the means. No one questions Quebec's financial capacity. The real question is this: What is better for Quebec?" He failed to point out the crucial issue: that Quebec would first have to secede, and that would almost certainly be a very difficult, unpredictable and costly process that would include a surrender of aboriginal territories.
Then, last Sunday, Charest went further in a letter to La Presse: "Quebec possesses the means of choosing its destiny and is free to do so, but it is not in the interest of Quebecers to turn their back on Canada to become a separate state."
Quebec is free to do so? The Supreme Court said the opposite: secession was possible, but under very onerous conditions, which included the consent of other Canadians. That is far from freedom to secede.
And he went further still: "We have always recognized that Quebecers could and should exercise freely their right to pronounce themselves democratically on the question of the political status of Quebec." As a statement of Charest's past positions, it was accurate. But as a statement of reality, it was utterly misleading.
Quebecers could vote freely in a referendum, but their vote would not grant them a free passage to independence, as the court made clear: "The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole. Democratic rights under the Constitution cannot be divorced from constitutional obligations."
Charest wasn't alone in pushing the envelope. The previous Sunday, his minister of Canadian intergovernmental relations, Benoit Pelletier, had made an even more provocative statement in a letter to La Presse: "Within Canadian federalism, Quebec remains 'free to chose its destiny,' as Robert Bourassa used to say. Moreover, the Supreme Court of Canada recognized, in 1998, that the secession of Quebec, even if it were unilateral, was possible. Quebecers may quite properly decide to take collective responsibility for themselves in the framework of a sovereign state, just as they may -- just as legitimately -- seek to do so within the Canadian federative bond."
Mr. Pelletier, as a former professor of constitutional law, must know that the supposed legitimacy of secession cannot be equated with the real legitimacy enjoyed within the federation. Quebec's legitimacy within the federation is secure and perpetual. Not so secession, the court ruled: "The Constitution binds all governments, both federal and provincial, including the executive branch. They may not transgress its provisions: indeed, their sole claim to exercise lawful authority rests in the powers allocated to them under the Constitution, and can come from no other source."
Charest could undermine separatism by demonstrating what a perilous adventure, uncertain in its outcome, any attempt at secession would be. He has chosen, instead, to defend separatism's most cherished myth: the right to a cost-free velvet independence.
He is now defending before the Quebec Court of Appeal Lucien Bouchard's riposte to the Clarity Act, called an "Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Quebec People and the Quebec State." Passed in 2000, it makes this claim, among others: "The Quebec people has the inalienable right to freely decide the political regime and legal status of Quebec. The Quebec people, acting through its own political institutions, shall determine alone the mode of exercise of its right to choose the political regime and legal status of Quebec." This law is really a passport for secession on demand and has been challenged in the courts by federalists in Quebec. Charest now defends it unconditionally. The case will be heard in September.
Charest could call the secessionists' bluff. But he won't because that would mean calling his own.
William Johnson is the author of Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada.
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William Johnson53 articles
William Johnson, a Quebec journalist, is a former president of Alliance Quebec
William Johnson, a Quebec journalist, is a former president of Alliance Quebec