Featuring the largest voter turnout in Quebec’s history, the tremendously narrow result of the 1995 referendum indicated that a substantial degree of Quebecers carried the political attitude of “provincialism” (“Québec Referendum (1995).”).
When 49.4% of voters asserted their discontent by voting “oui” to the question of separation from Canada, Quebec came remarkably close, yet fell short, of attaining sovereignty (“Québec Referendum (1995).”). In the aftermath, the federal government was compelled to appease the province by granting it the status of a “distinct society” as well as a de facto veto over any constitutional amendment (“New Distinct Society Law.”).
Fast forward just more than twenty years, and yet another referendum on separation is still certainly possible. Since 1995, it is important to consider that tectonic shifts have occurred in major realms: legislative, political, social and cultural. Given the extensive legal hurdles, changing provincial attitudes towards separation and the current political landscape, the likelihood of success in another Quebec referendum is abysmally low.
The exact wording of the ballot question of the 1995 referendum sparked great controversy. Critics argued that the ballot question was ambiguously worded and consequently called into question the validity of the outcome (“Referendum Question Unveiled.”).
Moreover, it was widely accepted that the aftermath of the referendum, had it been successful, would be ripe with uncertainty. In an effort to clear these doubts and establish a clear legal process for the secession of a province, Stéphane Dion, then Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, asked the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on the following questions (“Québec Referendum (1995).”):
- Under the Canadian Constitution, could Quebec unilaterally secede from Canada?
- Under international law, could Quebec unilaterally secede from Canada? Does Quebec have a right to “self-determination”?
In accordance with the Supreme Court’s response, the Parliament of Canada passed the Clarity Act, a landmark piece of legislation. The text stated, “there is no right, under international law or under the Constitution of Canada, for the National Assembly, legislature or government of Quebec to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.”(Clarity Act, 2000) This declaration, as a larger part of the Act, served to effectively quell the Quebec government’s threats of unilateral secession. This serves as a significant application of the rule of law, as it reinforces the principle that “nobody is above the law”, even the Quebec government in arbitrarily declaring independence.
Further, the Act also obliged the federal government to enter into negotiations with the Quebec government if Quebecers “expressed a clear will to secede.” While the legislation did not explicitly define “a clear will”, it did mention that “democracy means more than simple majority rule” implying that the threshold for success of a referendum ought to be greater than simply “50%+1”(Clarity Act, 2000). As such, significantly increasing this threshold for success in a referendum only makes it considerably more difficult for Quebec to demonstrate its will for independence.
Ultimately, it is up to the House of Commons to decide if “a clear will” is expressed. Currently, the Bloc Québécois is the dominant party campaigning for Quebec’s independence and yet remains vastly outnumbered, making up less than 3% of MPs in the House and 0% representation in the Senate (“Members of Parliament.”).
By entrenching the federal government’s commitment to negotiate with a province that has a demonstrated will for secession, the Act safeguards a province’s right to federal recognition of its referendum. On the issue of the clarity of the ballot question, the Act gave the provincial government the right to formulate the exact wording, subject to approval by the House of Commons (Clarity Act, 2000). In effect, this establishes a system of checks and balances to ensure that questions are worded in the most understandable and precise way, in a manner that can be agreed upon by all major parties.
Pursuant to the Clarity Act, an ultimate decision, “require negotiations involving at least the governments of all of the provinces and the Government of Canada”. The Act requires secession of a province to be reached in the form of a constitutional amendment. Consequently, it is crucial to consider the applications of the amending formula on the viability of secession.
To separate from the rest of Canada, Quebec would have to gain the support of 7 of 10 provinces (representing 50% of the population) as well as the Parliament of Canada. According to an Ipsos poll, the vast majority of Canadians outside Quebec, ranging from 60%-85%, disagree with the idea of Quebec as a separate nation. With such a degree of consensus, it is extremely unlikely that enough provinces would provide their support (“CTV Exclusive Poll”).
As attitudes have shifted over the years to favor federalism, Quebecers have become increasingly more open to embracing Canadian society as a whole. According to polls by Angus Reid Institute, the average Quebecer is more likely to claim to be “very proud of being Canadian” than the average Canadian. It should not be a surprise then, that according to the same poll, a full 82% of Quebecers agreed with the statement, “Ultimately, Quebec should stay in Canada.”(“CBC News.”) This outlook is exceptionally more optimistic when compared to the attitude prevalent during the 1995 referendum.
In order to effectively understand the future of separatist sentiment in Quebec, it is helpful to consider the historical context in which past referenda have taken place. For instance, the 1995 referendum for separation was largely a response to several factors that alienated Quebecers from the rest of Canadian society. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord, as well as the patriation of the Canadian constitution without Quebec’s support, were just some of the events that gave rise to resentment among Quebecers (“Québec Referendum (1995).”).
As a result, radical political parties such as Parti Quebecois which campaigned largely based on separatist sentiment were elected to government. In comparison, the political climate of today is immensely different. Coalition Avenir Québec, the political party which currently holds the majority of seats in Quebec’s National Assembly has explicitly stated, “(There) will never be a referendum for the life of the coalition even after 10 years, even after 20 years, so that’s clear.” (“Francois Legault Says CAQ Would ‘Never’ Hold a Referendum.”). Moreover, there is little political impetus to galvanize support for separation.
In conclusion, the province of Quebec faces a myriad of obstacles to a successful referendum on separation. On account of the Clarity Act, the threshold for a successful referendum is set higher than ever before and in a House of Commons with negligible representation of Quebec’s separatist sentiment, any legislation will likely be opposed.
Even if Quebec somehow manages to pass the threshold, it seems almost inconceivable that it would be able to satisfy the requirements of the constitutional amending formula, given the lack of support for the movement both in parliament and across the provinces.
Finally, barring any legal hurdles, there is diminishing support for separation among both Quebecers and their elected representatives.
Taking these circumstances into account, a referendum could only take place in the distant future if the political and cultural environment changes drastically. For these reasons, another referendum on separation, even if it happened, will almost certainly fail.
“3 In 4 Francophone Quebecers Believe Province Should Stay in Canada, Poll Suggests | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 3 Oct. 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/quebec-angus-reid-canada-indepdence-1.3788110.
“CTV Exclusive Poll: Rest of Canada Rejects Post-Sovereignty Vision.” Montreal, 21 Mar. 2014,montreal.ctvnews.ca/ctv-exclusive-poll-rest-of-canada-rejects-post-sovereignty-vision-1.1740318.
“Francois Legault Says CAQ Would ‘Never’ Hold a Referendum.” Montreal, 11 Apr. 2014, montreal.ctvnews.ca/francois-legault-says-caq-would-never-hold-a-referendum-1.1770999.
Legislative Services Branch. “Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, An Act to Give Effect to the Requirement for Clarity as Set out in the Opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec Secession Reference.” An Act to Give Effect to the Requirement for Clarity as Set out in the Opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Quebec Secession Reference, 18 Oct. 2018, laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-31.8/page-1.html.
“Members of Parliament.” Members of Parliament – House of Commons of Canada, http://www.ourcommons.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members?currentOnly=true&caucusId=6.
“New Distinct Society Law.” New Distinct Society Law | The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/new-distinct-society-law.
“Provincialism | Definition of Provincialism in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, Oxford Dictionaries, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/provincialism.
“Québec Referendum (1995).” Québec Referendum (1995) | The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/quebec-referendum-1995.
“Referendum Question Unveiled.” Referendum Question Unveiled | The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/referendum-question-unveiled.