Just when Canadians thought it was safe to enjoy a spring free of constitutional debate, the nation is once again surging unexpectedly toward a mini-crisis over Quebec nationhood.
Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard will conduct a special meeting today to decide whether to hold a snap election in the province. The reason, his aides say, is a federal government decision Friday to intervene in a legal case currently before the Quebec Superior Court.
Squabbling over a lawsuit might not matter much to most Quebeckers. But the issue could balloon if seized on by Mr. Bouchard as an "insult" to self-determination for Quebec, analysts say.
An election would also give Bouchard a stronger mandate from the Quebec people to move swiftly toward another referendum.
"At this moment there is no reason for Bouchard to go to an election," says Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. "But this would be a convenient excuse to gain for himself greater legitimacy - and a weapon to use against the federal government."
Bouchard has been warning Ottawa for several weeks not to get involved in the unusual legal action in which a former separatist - Guy Bertrand - is asking the Quebec courts to declare illegal any future referendums on Quebec separation. The last such referendum on Oct. 30 saw Quebeckers vote narrowly to remain in Canada.
The case has separatists worried because if the court were to rule for Mr. Bertrand, a Quebec City lawyer and former separatist, it could undermine popular support for any future referendum on secession by causing Quebeckers to view the vote as illegal.
Bertrand cheered Ottawa's decision, and legal analysts say the move brings credibility and substantial legal resources to the case. The former separatist said his fervor for Quebec statehood waned when he saw the Canadian political system was flexible enough to allow the separatists to sit in Parliament as the official opposition.
Intervening in the Bertrand case is important for the federal government in two key respects, says Stephen Scott, a constitutional scholar at McGill University. First, the case brings the federal government into the legal arena in opposing Quebec separation. It also provides a legal test for the separatist assertion that Canadian courts and Constitution have no place in deciding their future.
Prime Minister Jean Chrtien may also wish to intervene now, some analysts suggest, because he wishes to call for a federal election in the near future and wishes to be seen as dealing aggressively with the separatist threat. But others say Mr. Chrtien may simply be playing the only national unity card he has - the legal one.
"You would think this would be an obvious position [for the federal government] to take - but this has not been the case. Until now, there has not been the political will in Ottawa to just say 'no' to Quebec," Mr. Scott says.
Few question that a retaliatory snap election would once again catapult the nation into constitutional wrangling over what to do if Quebec secedes - and how best to prevent it. Fingers would point at Chrtien for accidentally reigniting the separatist flame.
If Bouchard calls for an election, most expect his separatist Parti Qubcois to win a majority - and a mandate to hold yet another referendum. The down side for Bouchard is that the move would further undermine the fragile Quebec economy. Calling for an election would contrast sharply with what he has been saying for months: that he wants to see the economy improve and wait two years before an election and another referendum.
On Friday, Canadian Justice Minister Allan Rock tried to soften the impact of Ottawa's decision, telling reporters that the government was joining the case simply to prevent a motion by the Quebec government to have the case thrown out. But Quebec's intergovernmental affairs minister, Jacques Brassard, was unimpressed. "For us, it is clear that democracy takes precedence over matters of a constitutional nature," he said citing international law.
Mr. Rock argues he was compelled to enter the case by Quebec's obdurate legal stance "that neither the Constitution nor the courts of Canada have any relevance or role in the process by which Quebec would accede to independence.... a position that cannot be left unanswered."