By Colby Cosh - Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 0 Comments
I have a joke I’ve been cracking about the controversy over the Clarity Act. “It’s simple! I’m with the New Democrats: fifty percent plus one is totally fine as a standard. But I also say this: let’s make it a contest of three out of five falls. And, remember, the federalists are already up two-zip.”
It’s not a very funny joke. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a good joke in at least the sense of having a kernel of truth within it. The expectation for a “clear majority” on a vote authorizing secession negotiations is usually presented by federalists as a sort of mystical axiom. Even in the Supreme Court reference on the subject the idea is not really broken down logically, perhaps because it won’t do to point out that the popular will is a very slippery abstraction, an awful shuddery foundation for any notion predicated on it.
Awkwardly, these notions include, in our system of government, elections and referendums. A government seeking a democratic mandate “goes to the country” and “consults” the populace, whose conflicting interests, goals, and ambitions are smooshed together by various clumsy formulae to produce the appearance of a single consensus. Democracy cannot bear too much purely deductive analysis, though its empirical underpinnings are mighty.
One notices that our metaphors for democratic testing, our ways of choosing between candidates or policy ideas, are competitive. Did Yes “beat” No? A mathematician might say there is a strong isomorphism, an analogy of form, between democracy and sport. There is certainly an obvious analogy between a referendum and, say, a hockey game; and when we place particular emphasis on finding out whether one hockey team is better than another, we don’t usually allow the matter to be settled with a single game, in one team’s building, at a time chosen by the home team, with rules selected and enforced exclusively by the home team. It’s a question of removing signal from noise, of excluding transitory or illegitimate influence from the competition.
Those who support national unity are keen to prevent Quebec separatists from pulling off a swindle of the sort they came close to in 1995: choosing a fleeting moment of advantageous sentiment to accomplish the permanent destruction of the Canadian state, which most Quebeckers have, through many generations, supported most of the time. But the extreme opinions on neither side are tenable. Strong unitarians embed assumptions in their language to “demonstrate” that Canada is sacred and indivisible, pretending that a historical conquest somehow has the irresistible logical force of Euclidean geometry. (Which even Euclidean geometry didn’t turn out to have.) At the same time, as Colleague Wells has pointed out, Quebec would practically need much more than a one-vote margin in one referendum to earn the necessary global assent to its independence project. It would need a majority that was “clear” in the sense, not necessarily of meeting a particular arbitrary bright-line standard, but of being able to endure a difficult political struggle—i.e., a “negotiation phase” in which an appeal to force was always possible—and to still appear irreversible and convincing at the end of it. If such a situation existed, there can be no question that to permit secession would be right.
So why not a “three out of five falls” rule? The applicability of the sports metaphor is quite real: ascertaining which hockey team is essentially “better” under never-existing neutral conditions is very much like extracting a “popular will” from an opinion sample of a population. Recognize, I say, the reality that fifty percent plus one is a “majority”; sidestep the fundamentally irresolvable arguments between three-fifths and two-thirds and three-quarters as a standard. But require that 50%+1 be achieved several times over a period of years, with a slightly different electorate being consulted each time. Even the voter-eligibility criteria can vary; the case for giving minor children a vote on a question of permanent future import is, after all, particularly sound. Let the government of Quebec frame the question in one vote and Parliament do it in another. Count noses in one and ridings in another. If the moral conditions for secession exist, it should not be hard to extract not just a “Oui” from Quebec, but a resounding “Oui, oui, oui” that would convince English Canada as Slovakia convinced the Czechs.
By Paul Wells - Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 11:02 AM - 0 Comments
Mostly the bill is a shrine to Paragraph 88 of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the 1998 Secession Reference. As I wrote last night in numbing detail, any victory dance over an “obligation to negotiate” secession should entail some serious thought about what those negotiations would be like, and there’s none here. But then there’s a bonus:
9. For greater certainty, the question concerning the constitutional change may include proposals to implement recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, such as proposals relating to
(a) the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework;
(b) the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec;
(c) permanent tax transfers and associated standards; and
(d) the Government of Quebec’s opting out with full compensation from any programs if the Government of Canada intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Continue…
By Paul Wells - Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 12:29 AM - 0 Comments
Emmett Macfarlane has already written here on the NDP’s Unity Bill, which makes secession easier than the Liberals’ Clarity Act, which as some of the critics Aaron Wherry canvasses have pointed out, isn’t super-clear. I’m not going to try to win arguments here; I learned a long time ago it can’t be done, thanks partly to the superhuman ability of activists in the secession debate to speak and write with certainty about things they haven’t read. If, for instance, you haven’t read Jacques Parizeau’s books Pour un Québec souverain and La souveraineté du Québec, maybe you shouldn’t speculate on what he planned after the 1995 referendum. But on the other hand you probably needn’t let it stop you, because I keep running into people who’ve read the books and still don’t seem to have understood basic points Parizeau repeats frequently.
Anyway. The reason we have spent nearly 40 years debating the effect of referendum results a few points this side or that of 50 per cent is because we have all known for nearly that long that any separatist “victory” in a referendum will be a close thing. If there ever were such a vote, 50 per cent plus a bit on a confusing question, then a sovereignist Quebec government would run into difficulties that don’t have much to do with the text of the Clarity Act and would not be eased by Tom Mulcair’s attempted compromise. Continue…
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, March 12, 2012 at 1:29 PM - 0 Comments
Stephane Dion chastises the NDP’s approach to Quebec.
Just like the Bloc, the NDP would have Quebec’s Bill 101 apply to federal institutions, with no second thought about the negative impacts such a move would have on official language minorities across the country.
Just like the Bloc, the NDP would have Quebec’s representation in the House of Commons frozen at its present percentage. But at the same time, the NDP says it wants to correct the under-representation of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia while maintaining the representation level of the other provinces. Should Quebec’s representation go up in percentage without other provinces going down, the total would go over 100% — an arithmetical impossibility. Only in sports can one “give 110%.” No wonder the NDP refuses to release its numbers. That’s what happens when you try to please everyone without being honest about the consequences.
Just like the Bloc, the NDP argues that a majority of 50%-plus-one is the only valid rule in a democracy. Yet even the NDP requires a two-thirds majority to amend its own constitution.
By Aaron Wherry - Monday, November 7, 2011 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
Saganash was ripped from the bosom of his nomadic Cree family near the remote northern Quebec village of Waswanipi and shipped to a residential school some 500 kilometres away in La Tuque. ”A very traumatic experience for anybody,” he recently told The Canadian Press.
In his own case, the experience was made immeasurably worse within six months of his arrival at the school, when the priest in charge called him and his siblings into his office to inform them that their father had died. In the next breath, Saganash recalls, the priest advised them: “We don’t have the budgets to send you there (for the funeral) so you’ll have to do your grieving here in the residential school. I still recall the scene when he gave us the bad news, we were sitting in front of the director, the priest. I still recall my brothers and sisters were crying and crying and crying and I was just there staring at him. That was, I think, a turning point for me.”
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, November 4, 2011 at 9:30 AM - 3 Comments
Romeo Saganash questions his party’s position on secession.
The Cree MP, who represents a vast northern Quebec riding, is doubtful the 50-per-cent-plus-one threshold is consistent with the Supreme Court’s 1998 opinion on the matter. ”I don’t know to what extent is that the proper interpretation of the Supreme Court’s opinion,” Saganash said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press. ”The Supreme Court said it has to be a clear response to a clear question.”
The NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration is available here.
By Aaron Wherry - Tuesday, May 31, 2011 at 12:12 PM - 34 Comments
Liberal MP Stephane Dion counsels Jack Layton.
In its opinion on the secession of Quebec, the Supreme Court of Canada mentioned the words “clear majority” at least 13 times, and also referred to “the strength of a majority.” However, the Court does not encourage us to try setting the threshold of this clear majority in advance: “it will be for the political actors to determine what constitutes ‘a clear majority on a clear question’ in the circumstances under which a future referendum vote may be taken.”
By Aaron Wherry - Friday, May 27, 2011 at 10:14 AM - 39 Comments
Stephane Dion takes aim at Jack Layton’s position on secession.
Dion said the top court would have said so if it meant a bare majority would be good enough to trigger secession negotiations. Instead the court insisted, 13 times, that a “clear majority” would be necessary. ”If (Layton thinks) 50 per cent plus one is a clear majority, what is an unclear majority?” Dion asked in an interview.
Dion said the debate has been framed as though accepting a bare majority result would be showing respect to Quebecers. But determining something as momentous as the fate of the country on the basis of one vote, is “not respecting Quebecers, not respecting their rights to be Canadians unless they clearly decide to stop being Canadians.” ”You are in the situation to decide the choice of a country (based on) the results of a judicial recount or the examination of rejected ballots. It would be an absurd, untenable position,” he added.