Ambiguity in 'clarity bill' could keep Canada intact

Ottawa holds hearings this week on a bill that sets the rules for secession.

Breaking up may be hard to do.

In a 1995 referendum, Quebec voters nearly said "oui" to independence. The event is routinely referred to in the English press here as "Canada's near-death experience."

To keep such a thing from happening again, Prime Minister Jean Chrtien has been pushing single-mindedly, since December, with his so-called clarity bill. The bill sets out new conditions under which Canada would negotiate Quebec's breaking away. The legislation stems from a 1998 Supreme Court opinion that said a referendum question must be clear: "that they no longer wish to remain in Canada."

The second aspect is that the majority must be clear. "People hope that if [a referendum] ever happens you will have more than 50 percent plus one. If not you better hope not to win," says Claude Gauthier, director of research at the Montreal polling firm CROP. Once the results are known, it is up to the authorities to determine what action to take.

The bill has been put on a fast track; after committee hearings, set to conclude Feb. 24, and should soon be before the full House of Commons.

But whatever the outcome, the bill is remarkable for how atypical it is in Canadian statecraft, where a certain amount of creative ambiguity is often preferred to clarity, especially on the issue of national unity.

It's a huge contrast with the United States, whose own issue of national unity was, after all, settled by a civil war. "But we prefer a more flexible formulation," said Claude Ryan, a former leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, in a brief interview before he testified against the bill in Ottawa. Given "the fundamental duality" of the country, its French and English traditions, "you have to have the assent of the two major partners" to effect changes, he says. "You don't force things."

He cited an example from history: Well into World War II, Quebec came under pressure from Canada's allies to abandon its no-conscription policy. Since the policy had been a campaign pledge, the government held a plebiscite on the issue. Only 25 percent in Quebec approved conscription, but in the rest of Canada it was 75 percent. And so the Canadian government applied conscription - but with such calculated procrastination, Mr. Ryan says, that the war was over before many draftees were pressed into service. It was a way of finessing a profound split, "so that we would not be a torn nation," he says. "It was the Canadian way."

Present-day examples of creative ambiguity abound, too. Many aspects of federal-provincial relations, for instance, remain undefined. And Canadian guarantees of civil liberties are less absolutist than those in the United States. In January hearings on a controversial child-pornography case, for instance, Supreme Court Justice Clare L'Heureux-Dub reminded the petitioner, "On freedom of expression we have been diverging from the Americans."

Nor is Mr. Ryan, who called the clarity bill an "intrusion" into Quebec affairs, the only public figure calling for "flexibility."

Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark, whose party strategy includes reaching out to Quebec's "soft nationalists," has called for some traditional "Canadian ambiguity" rather than Chrtien's "clarity."

Either way, the clarity bill has been quite popular with the public outside Quebec. It is intended to codify in legislation key points of a Supreme Court opinion sought by the Chrtien government. The court ruled that if a referendum produced a clear majority in favor of independence on a clear question, Ottawa would be obliged to negotiate with the separatists.

The clarity of the question is critical: Federalists, who want to keep the country together, worry that the 1995 vote was so close (50.6 percent to 49.4 percent) because voters weren't clear what they were saying "yes" to. The question made no mention of a "separate country," for instance.

Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard has promised to hold another referendum on independence when he sees "winning conditions." This lets him maintain his credentials as a sovereignist while procrastinating strategically. And he has responded to the clarity bill by introducing his own provincial legislation that, in effect, says that it is up to Quebec to decide on what referendums to hold.

Quebec's provincial legislature "doesn't want Ottawa to dictate the question," says Mr. Gauthier. But the majority of the population "want to stay in Canada," he adds, "though maybe under a different association."

Complete independence is not a popular option. "In all the polls we do, most people who support independence are 'soft sovereignists' who want to know in advance that they'll have an association with Canada - political or at least economic," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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