Podium

Quebec’s long and lonely journey

Robert M. Fowler April 7 1980
Podium

Quebec’s long and lonely journey

Robert M. Fowler April 7 1980

Quebec’s long and lonely journey

Podium

Robert M. Fowler

I believe Quebec is a treasured and essential part of Canada and that sovereignty-association would not serve the interests of either Quebeckers or other Canadians. It is a system that is probably unattainable and, if achieved with great difficulty after long delays, it would quickly become unworkable. History, tradition and the self-interest of Canadians in all provinces compels the choice of a renewed federal system for governing the close and friendly relations that must continue to exist between Quebeckers and people in other parts of Canada.

Moreover, sovereignty-association cally impossible to achieve in the way proposed by the Parti Québécois. Its leader has repeatedly said he does not want “to break our union with the rest of Canada.” On Oct. 10,

1978, he said, “There is no question in our mind of obtaining sovereignty first and then negotiating association afterwards . . . Sovereignty and association must materialize without a break and at the same time.” In December, 1979, René Lévesque released the proposed text of the referendum question which was under debate in the Quebec national assembly until last week. It asks Quebeckers to give the government “a mandate to negotiate” an agreement with the rest of Canada which would provide for Quebec sovereignty and “at the same time maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency.” Any change in political status resulting from the negotiations is not to occur until it has been approved specifically in a second referendum.

This proposed procedure ignores basic legal and political facts and any mandate to negotiate the agreement envisaged in this complicated referendum question would be impossible to carry out, while Quebec remains a part of Canada. There can be no agreement to be submitted in a second referendum.

Sovereignty—which is an euphemism for separation— could be chosen by Quebeckers, if a solid majority favored it in response to a clear and honest question in a referendum. It is unthinkable that their choice to become an independent country would be resisted by force. But an economic association can only be created by agreement and any agreement requires at least two parties legally competent to contract. At the present time, the second party to the proposed agreement does not exist. The “rest of Canada” is not a legal entity and the leaders of its component parts have no power or authority to negotiate an economic arrangement with a Quebec that is still a province in the Canadian federation. All Canadian governments were elected to discharge the responsibilities assigned to them in the present constitution. The federal government, containing many MPs and Senators from Quebec, has no consti-

‘Sovereignty-association is legally and politically impossible as proposed by the Parti Québécois ’

tutional authority to speak for the “rest of Canada.” The other provincial governments have no authority to negotiate an economic association with a Quebec that might sometime in the future decide to become independent.

This is not to say that Quebec independence is impossible to achieve or that ultimately an economic agreement between a separated Quebec and a reconstituted “Canada” is unattainable by legal and valid means. But sovereignty and association cannot be obtained “without a break and at the same time” as the PQ proposes.

Separation must take place first, and as a separate act. If Quebeckers choose independence, an amendment of the British North America Act by the British Parliament would have to be requested by Canada. A request for such a fundamental change requires the consent of the central and provincial governments. Mr. Lévesque and other Quebec leaders have been the most ardent in insisting that amendments to the basic constitution require unanimous consent of the provinces. In the unlikely event that the other nine provinces agreed to a Quebec decision to separate and to stay together as a country, there would have to be extensive changes in the structures of both the Quebec government and those of “Canada”—a reconstituted House of Commons and Senate with no Quebec members, a new Supreme Court, the withdrawal of federal institutions and services from Quebec and their replacement by Quebec services and many other complicated changes in “Canada.” Also in Quebec new departments and institutions would have to be created to discharge functions that are now federal responsibilities. Only then would Quebec become legally sovereign and independent. Only then would the rest of Canada become a legal entity capable of negotiating an economic association.

I believe that all Canadian governments are ready to work constructively together to develop a new Canadian federal system that will produce strong regional governments and a strong central government, making a strong country that will serve the interests of all Canadians and enable Canada to play a valuable role in world affairs. But, inevitably, if Quebeckers were to decide to break up the Canadian union and seek an economic deal with a truncated “Canada,” the negotiators for “Canada” would enter the discussions in a resentful and antagonistic mood. The chances that an agreement beneficial to both new countries would result are very slight indeed.

If Quebeckers choose to march down the road toward sovereignty-association and to reach it by constitutional means, they face a long and lonely journey into an uncer-

tain future._

Robert M. Fowler, chairman of the executive committee of C.D. Howe Research Institute, has just completed a book tentatively called A Guide to the Canadian Constitution.