Canada's Quebec Ruling
Could Be Double-Edged Sword
By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Canada must negotiate on Quebec's secession if the French-speaking province clearly wins an independence referendum, but Quebec has no right to leave unilaterally. Tackling possibly the most contentious issue in Canada's 131-year history, the court voiced principles which many federalists said bolstered their position, but which also appeared to confer legitimacy on the secessionist drive. Canada was now watching whether separatist Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard would try to capitalize on the decision by calling a quick provincial election, as a precursor to another popular referendum on independence. ``A clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favor of secession would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative which all of the other participants in Confederation would have to recognize,'' the nine high court judges said in their 78-page unanimous decision. ``The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession, should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.'' The Canadian government, which in 1995 came within one percentage point of seeing the break-up of the federation in the last Quebec referendum, asked the court in September 1996 to rule -- in the calm between the storms -- whether Quebec could secede unilaterally. It got its answer, but with major caveats. ``There is no right under the constitution or at international law, to unilateral secession, that is secession without negotiation...'' the court said. It said a simple majority vote -- meaning one vote over 50 percent -- was not enough to destroy the country: ``Canadians have never accepted that ours is a system of simple majority rule.'' It declined to specify what majority it could accept. The court also accepted the arguments made by Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, that any referendum question had to be clear -- for example, asking directly whether Quebec should leave Canada. It ruled that the only way Quebec could legally secede was through a constitutional amendment, ``which perforce requires negotiation.'' It said Quebec would not have an absolute legal right to insist on seceding as the outcome of such talks. But the court was equally adamant that Canada could not simply ignore a referendum but was obliged to enter into negotiations on such an amendment -- something the separatists were certain to seize upon. Chretien, a francophone Quebecker who has spent his life fighting secession, had said during the 1995 referendum that it was only consultative. Trying to ignore a Quebec vote would call into question ''the continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order,'' it said. Effectively, the ruling set out for the first time the basic framework for how secession would be carried out. It conceded that negotiations might hit an impasse. But it also dangled the possibility of Quebec seceding illegally -- and seeing if the world would follow. ``This (the domestic and international illegality) does not rule out the possibility of an unconstitutional declaration of secession leading to a de facto secession,'' it said. ``The ultimate success of such a secession would be dependent on recognition by the international community, which is likely to consider the legality and legitimacy of secession...'' William Johnson, an English-speaking Quebec native who has fought for the rights of non-francophones, triumphantly declared that the Supreme Court decision raised the hurdle so high that no Quebec government ever would be able to secede. ``The only way the Quebec government could give any semblance of legitimacy to its position was by asking trick questions...but when they have to ask clear questions and have a clear majority, they'll never to be able to it,'' he said. ``You have to negotiate, you have to win the assent of the provinces, you have to win the assent of minorities, of all the peoples of this country, and you have to abide by the rule of law.'' Guy Bertrand, a lawyer who was one of the founders of the separatist Parti Quebecois and now passionately embraces the federalist cause, hailed the ruling. ``The Supreme Court has said that the Quebec people, the French-speaking people are not oppressed, they are not a colony and therefore there is no need for self-determination.'' The financial markets, which were expected to be roiled by a resurgence of political uncertainty following the decision, took the ruling calmly. The Canadian dollar, which has lost seven percent of its value in the past five months, was roughly unchanged at 65.3 U.S. cents. Analysts warned, however, that the real test for the financial markets would come when the Quebec government and public reacted to the decision. ``This isn't a clear-cut thing because it is in the court of public opinion, so we have to wait to see how the Quebec public responds and see what the chances of a provincial election might be,'' said Mark Chandler, senior economist at Goldman Sachs in Toronto.