'We were fanatics, always thinking we were right. Then, I realized that separatism was not good for Quebec. We must learn to live together.’
Guy Bertrand was an avid separatist who ran for the leadership of the Parti Québécois in 1985. But he quit the independence struggle in November, 1994, because he realized that Quebec already enjoyed a “de facto sovereignty-association” within Canada, and that independence was unnecessary and too risky to pursue. So he took the Parti Québécois to court during the referendum and scored an important constitutional victory. The court ruled that any attempt to unilaterally secede, as the PQ threatened to do after a Yes victory, would be illegal. Not surprisingly, Bertrand has since been shunned by and alienated from friends and family. His separatist brother, Péquiste caucus leader Rosaire Bertrand, has not talked to him since, but he is convinced more than ever that the separatists are wrong.
“It’s impossible to be more sovereign if we separate than we are now. Why? Because we are sovereign within the Constitution, de facto on language, culture, with the civil code, with our distinct institutions, and no one is attacking our language,” he says. ‘What Mr. Bouchard was proposing—the partnership—was to have the same things we have in common with the rest of the country already, like passports, currency, the Queen. So why separate? It’s about a symbolic seat in the United Nations and a national anthem. That’s no reason to separate. It’s crazy. If it was impossible to keep our French language and identity and culture, that would justify leaving, but that is not the case.”
The unfair treatment of the anglophone minority in Quebec has also bothered Bertrand. “I’m not sure many English-speaking people would have stayed in Quebec after a declaration of independence. We lost 170,000 between 1976 and 1980. How many would leave Quebec if we separate? A poll in March said that a minimum of 500,000 would leave Quebec and possibly one million,” he says. “The anglophone minority was here in 1760, almost as long as we were. This is totally unjust to run them out.”
Bertrand, a 57-year-old lawyer, took these convictions to court and convinced the Superior Court of Quebec that the PQ’s intention to declare unilateral independence one year after a Yes vote was illegal because it would be a unilateral change of the Constitution. Bertrand also argued that a unilateral declaration of independence would jeopardize his fundamental rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, particularly the right to move within Canada, to vote and to hold a Canadian passport.
The judge agreed that the legislation was unconstitutional because it circumvented the Charter of Rights without a proper amendment to the Constitution. In essence, the judge stated categorically that no Canadian can be stripped of his passport, vote or rights to move within the country without the assent of all Canadians through constitutional amendment. But the judge declined to impose an injunction, which would have stopped the referendum from happening. He said that any unilateral declaration of independence would be unconstitutional, although the vote itself could go ahead.
Issuing an injunction against the vote, he ruled, could create a more serious wrong than the one he was trying to prevent.
Bertrand is now taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish that even any vote on independence without a prior amendment to the Constitution is illegal. He should be massively backed by English Canada. “I left the Parti because I opened my eyes,” he says now. “We were fanatics, always thinking we were right. I decided to question myself. What if I’m wrong? I remembered the arguments of some of the federalists and I started to understand that maybe they were right. I felt that we could not impose our old constitutional quarrels on the next generation. I realized that the separatist option was not good for the Quebec society. When they decided to have a new referendum, I asked to see Parizeau. He refused. So I wrote to him and told him that this option would cause permanent damage to the Canadian and Quebec societies, and I couldn’t defend it any more. I decided we cannot pass our whole life trying to separate. We must learn how to live together.”
Bertrand said he studied other democracies and determined that Canada was a model society just as it is. “I started reading about federalism in other countries like Switzerland, the United States and Australia. I found out that we had the best federalism in the world, most decentralized. I think 25 years from now people around the world will find out that this federalism we have—a de facto sovereignty-association—is the model.
“This country is only a little child, just 120 years old. Children make mistakes. We cannot destroy a country because we have some administrative problems, such as power over immigration, communications or manpower training. We’re not going to destroy a country for that? That’s ridiculous.”
Bertrand, like most of us, is fed up with the federalists’ political mishandling of the separatist threat. “Now, the citizens should take in their hands this responsibility to protect this country because the politicians have not,” he says. “During the campaign, the Liberals didn’t talk about the illegality of trying to separate unilaterally even though my case was victorious. No one talked about that. When you have a government not defending the Constitution or protecting the Charter of Rights and the rule of law, that’s the end. That’s what the government is there for. The Charter of Rights is the most important thing in this country.”
That is why Bertrand wants the Supreme Court of Canada to give him an injunction preventing Quebec from ever again passing a bill in its national assembly giving it the power to secede without amending the federal Constitution. The rule of law is Canada’s most important cornerstone, and the bench—rather than the ballot box—may save the nation from manipulations by the separatist fanatics. And if that is the case, Canadians will have a courageous former separatist, Guy Bertrand, to thank for that.
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