John Ryan | July 12th 2012
In his argument against the possibility of Québec separating from Canada, Andrew Coyne (National Post, July 5) has presented a dooms-day scenario – “It would be the end of Canada.” Much of his argument is from the position that Québec is a province comparable to Canada’s other provinces. It is this assumption that has been at the basis of much of the turmoil in this country over the years.
The essence of the problem is that Canada basically consists of two separate nations, but somehow English-speaking Canada, and, apparently, about half of the people of Québec still do not recognize this as a fact. There are a number of definitions of “nation,” but its basic essence refers to people who are in effective control of a territory in which they form a majority, and have unifying characteristics, such as language, culture, and tradition. Given this, under the UN Charter, Québec has the right to national self-determination, which includes the right to independence. On this basis, Québec obviously qualifies as a nation — hence, it should not be referred to as a province, comparable to other provinces.
Canada had denied any such recognition to Québec until 2006, at which time Parliament approved a motion that recognized that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” Although the Parti Québécois welcomed the move, they nevertheless vowed they would continue to fight for Québec’s total independence.
Andrew Coyne puts forth a worst-case scenario in several respects and then concludes that Québec separation could never take place and that supposedly the status quo will continue forever into the future. However, in his argument, Coyne does not take into account a number of factors.
Since the Québécois constitute a nation they have a UN-sanctioned right to national self-determination. If they should choose to exercise this right, by means of a referendum, and if the result is conclusive, Canada would not be in a position pretend that this did not happen and somehow try to thwart Québec’s right to independence.
Canada could not use the excuse that its federal government does not have the legal or constitutional provisions to enable it to negotiate Québec’s separation, or to simply refuse to negotiate Québec’s departure. Under such conditions, Québec could appeal to the UN to intervene to enforce its right to national-self-determination. Rather than become an international pariah, Canada would be forced to negotiate Québec’s independence.
To conduct any meaningful negotiations, this would have to be done by the federal government, with minimal input by the provinces. The suggestion that a separation agreement might have to be put to a referendum in English-speaking Canada is nonsensical. English-speaking Canada is not in a position to deny Québec’s right to national self-determination, or to deny Québec’s right to independence. Hence a referendum in English-speaking Canada would be pointless.
The critical issues that would require negotiation between Canada and Québec would centre on financial matters. Since Québec forms almost a quarter of Canada’s population, through federal taxes of various types, Québec finances almost a quarter of the federal budget and therefore owns roughly a quarter of all federal property — not only in Québec but in all of Canada. Accountants in this regard have long concluded that the value of federal property within Québec roughly equals Québec’s share of federal property within the rest of Canada. It is matters such as these that would require negotiation.
Since there is an enormous amount of trade between Québec and Canada, it would be in the interests of both parties to reach a fair and equitable settlement…and not to mention an amicable one, in the interests of all concerned.
Despite Andrew Coyne’s avalanche of supposedly insurmountable problems, most of them would not materialize. For example, why should Québec’s departure ”trigger a demand to renegotiate the terms of association among the shards that remained…”? We should have enough faith in English-speaking Canada to realize that without Québec we would not somehow self-destruct.
Coyne assumes that a Parti Québécois government would fail to put a clear referendum question to its people. But if an opportune time arrives for a referendum, with confidence of a Yes vote, why shouldn’t they put forth a clear question?
There is also the assumption by Coyne that in the next referendum, the people would vote No to a clear question. However, this time around, the Québec government would not hold a referendum unless the conditions would assure a Yes vote, so it is quite possible that the result could be a substantial Yes, with sufficient numbers to satisfy the Clarity Act. Moreover, the Clarity Act may be irrelevant in the final analysis.
Admittedly, there would be losses for Canada without Québec, but there would also be gains as well — which leads to a further analysis.
Although the matter of Québec separation is usually met with great consternation, we should not dismiss the possibility that this could be in the best interests, equally, for both Québec and English-speaking Canada.
John Ryan is a retired Professor of Geography and Senior Scholar at the University of Winnipeg.