In a ruling that toughens the task for Quebec's separatists, Canada's Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision yesterday that Quebec has no right to secede unilaterally from the federation.
Under the ruling, Quebec is allowed to secede, but it can do so only after agreement with the federal government and the other nine provinces. Separatists had claimed Quebec can secede if the province votes to do so in a referendum.
"On the face of it, it seems to be a balanced judgment," says Ghislain Otis, a law professor at Laval University in Quebec City. "The court spelled out under what conditions [secession] could actually take place." Because the ruling was balanced, he adds, it could be difficult for the Quebec government to use it as an election issue, though that may well happen.
Quebec separatists are expected to use the decision to bolster their cause of forming an independent country. Constitutional lawyers in Montreal say it is the first time a court in a Western democracy has ruled on the right to secession.
Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard may use the decision to call an early election in hopes of bolstering chances for a referendum.
Quebec's government was studying the 78-page decision before making any announcement.
Separatists in Quebec have gambled twice before that public opinion was in favor of independence, but they lost both times. The initial defeat came in 1980, four years after the separatist Parti Qubcois (PQ) was first elected under Premier Ren Lvesque and separation became an issue. The federalist side won 60 per cent of the vote.
The referendum of October 1995 was a different story. It was almost a tie, with the federalists winning by about 55,000 votes.
Court prodded to act
Following that close call, a federalist lawyer from Quebec City, Guy Bertrand, began a personal campaign in the courts, seeking a ruling that Quebec did not have the legal right to separate from Canada. The federal government was forced by that move to seek the advice of the nine-member Supreme Court on the constitutional issue.
After the ruling, Mr. Bertrand said that "it refutes what Quebec nationalists have been saying for 30 years," that Quebeckers are an oppressed, colonial minority. "The court says that you cannot ignore the Constitution."
The court's decision was supposed to bring clarity to the issue. "This is not a declaration about what Quebec can do, but how Quebec can do it," says Bruce Ryder, a professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. But the decision could also bring a rise in French-speaking nationalism in Quebec. That in turn could mean an early election call, although premier Bouchard and his government do not have to call an election until the fall of 1999. If the Parti Qubcois were re-elected, it could call another referendum on independence anytime during its five-year mandate.
Premier Bouchard has said he will not call such a referendum unless he is certain he can win the vote for independence. Quebec's government maintains that a vote of 50 percent plus one would be sufficient to declare independence.
The Parti Qubcois government suffered a setback in the public opinion polls earlier this year, when the opposition Quebec Liberal Party - which supports the federalist cause - elected a new leader, Jean Charest. At the time Mr. Charest left his post as leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in Ottawa, he was said to be the most popular politician in Quebec. The Liberals vaulted past the Parti Qubcois in the polls.
But the polls are fickle. A public opinion survey published in Montreal's French language La Presse newspaper a week ago gave Liberals 45.5 percent to the Parti Qubcois's 43 percent. Another poll for Toronto's Globe and Mail and Le Journal de Montreal gave the Liberals an edge of 50.3 percent to 45.2 percent.
The political reality in Quebec is that the Liberals need a lead of about 5 percentage points to win an election. That is because there are 125 seats, or districts, and the party that wins the majority of them forms the government.
Support for the Liberals is concentrated in the Montreal area - home to 3.5 million of Quebec's 7 million people. Support for the Parti Qubcois is more evenly spread and is stronger in the French-speaking areas outside Montreal. That means the PQ can win an election with much less than 50 percent of the popular vote.
Earlier this week, Bouchard started an early-election rumor after he canceled a scheduled trade mission to Latin America in November.
Numerous issues would come into play if Quebec's voters did decide they want to become a new nation, among them the sharing of Canada's national debt and the future of native rights.
Montreal lawyer Julius Gray says the ruling will make Quebeckers think twice about separatism: "In the short run it may convince people to say, 'Let's not do it.' "