The Canadian government is asking the nation's Supreme Court to rule whether Quebec can legally declare itself independent from the federation, as Quebec's separatist government argues.
Warning that the country could be thrown into chaos if Quebec one day declared independence unilaterally, Justice Minister Alan Rock told Parliament last Thursday that a ruling from the high court was desperately needed to clarify the issue for Quebeckers and all Canadians.
"This issue is of enormous significance," Mr. Rocks said. A declaration of independence "would undermine political stability, interrupt the prevailing order, and cast into doubt the interests and the rights of Quebeckers and all Canadians," he said.
Quebec separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard immediately dismissed the move as politically motivated and meaningless, and said Quebec would boycott the proceedings by not arguing its side of the case.
"There is only one tribunal that will decide Quebec's political future - that is the Quebec people," Mr. Bouchard told reporters in Quebec City.
Under Canadian law, the federal government has the right to seek legal opinions on important issues from the nine-member Supreme Court. But it will be only the 75th time in history such an opinion has been sought.
The ruling will be one of the most important in the court's history. And Prime Minister Jean Chrtien's decision to proceed in this legal arena is a critical strategic change in the decades-long battle to keep Quebec within Canada, analysts say.
"This is the first time the government of Canada has ever admitted that the question of separation is to be contemplated seriously," says Hugh Thorburn, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. "The government's approach has always been: 'This is a crazy idea, and people will get over it....' Now they're saying: 'This is serious.' "
Quebeckers voted in a referendum last October to remain part of Canada, but by only the slimmest of majorities: less than one percentage point. That near miss emboldened separatists, dismayed federalists, and led to Bouchard's ascension to power earlier this year as provincial premier and leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois.
Rock's legal challenge comes now, he says, because assertions that Canadian law and the federal Constitution do not apply to Quebec's self-determination have been growing in intensity.
A Quebec court case this spring challenged Quebec's right to secede. Lawyers for Quebec's government argued for the first time that Canadian law had no relevance to the issue of secession. International law, the lawyers argued, supported the right of Quebec to self-determination.
Prime Minister Chrtien now seems determined to take a tougher stance. He had promised Quebeckers a carrot prior to last year's vote, saying he would fight for constitutional changes to accommodate Quebec's aspirations to control its own destiny. But the other provinces were in no mood to accommodate Quebec - or Chrtien.
Lacking provincial support, Chrtien's subsequent modest changes were laughed off in Quebec. Now he seems willing to use legal means to try to dramatically shift Quebeckers' attitudes.
Separatists predictably deride Chrtien for what they see as an attempt to thwart the political will of Quebeckers and to appeal to English-speaking voters outside of Quebec in advance of an election expected next fall. Legal arguments won't be heard by the court until May or June 1997. An opinion is expected by next fall.
Bouchard and others say Chrtien's legal move will backfire and offend Quebeckers. Prominent federalists, such as Quebec Liberal Party leader Daniel Johnson and Progressive Conservative Party leader Jean Charest, argue that the move turns Quebeckers away from Canada.
Reaction will be negative in Quebec in the short run, most analysts agree. But some suggest that Chrtien's maneuver may be quite cleverly effective in the long run because it aims not to sway popular sentiments across the spectrum but specifically within a segment of the electorate pollsters identify as "soft nationalists."
Claude Gauthier, director of research for CROP, a Montreal-based polling firm, points out that not all who voted "yes" in the last referendum were thinking of an independent Quebec when they cast ballots.
At least 10 to 15 percent who voted "yes," he says, did so because they believed that after a "yes" vote there would be a friendly arrangement between Canada and Quebec involving economic and political partnership. Even more Quebeckers believed, prior to voting, that they would keep their Canadian passports or have dual citizenship and use the Canadian dollar.
"If the court's ruling persuaded these people that Quebec might not be a part of Canada after the next referendum - they could vote 'no,' " Mr. Gauthier says.
Bouchard has promised another vote on whether Quebec should stay or leave Canada sometime around 1998 - after the next provincial elections.