Canada's union is in good hands. That was the clearest message from the decision handed down Aug. 20 by the country's Supreme Court on the question of secession by Quebec. The court didn't say Quebec couldn't separate from the rest of Canada under Canadian and international law. Only that any such separation would have to be according to carefully observed processes, including negotiation with the federal government and the other provinces. In making that ruling, the court reviewed Canadian history (Quebec's separatist impulses aren't the country's first) and noted: "the evolution of our constitutional arrangements has been characterized by adherence to the rule of law, respect for democratic institutions, the accommodation of minorities, insistence that governments adhere to constitutional conduct and a desire for continuity and stability." The truth of that statement underscores a fundamental irony regarding secession: Why leave a highly successful democratic union that has bent over backward to accommodate linguistic and cultural diversity? Quebec separatists, represented by the incumbent Parti Qu cois, might reply that sovereignty has its own logic.
The province's premier, Lucien Bouchard, has promised another referendum (the third on separation) soon after the next election in Quebec, likely late this year or early next. Mr. Bouchard, a fervent separatist, has interpreted the court's ruling as helping his cause by stating that Quebec independence would have to be negotiated once a referendum passed. But Quebec politics are undergoing their own evolution. The Liberal Party has a new, highly popular leader in Jean Charest. He will seriously compete for the top job in the province. It's thus by no means clear another referendum lies just ahead. Nor is it certain that the public wants another such vote. If one does come, the court emphasized, the ballot question must be clear (no fuzziness about continued partnership with Canada), and a clear majority would be needed for passage (hinting at something more than 50 percent plus one). This ruling, or "reference," was asked for by the federal government - a step vigorously opposed by the separatists. So the potential for sharp political reaction was great. But the court, in a unanimous ruling, has plotted a course that allows for separation but makes clear the gravity of that undertaking. Its clear reasoning and fair-mindedness, in themselves, should give many Quebecers yet another reason to stay within Canada.