Volume 91, Issue 77

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

sugar daddy


To separate or not to separate: Court to decide if Quebec can go it alone

By Heather Maddocks
Gazette Staff

After a long wait, the Quebec federal government has gone to the Supreme Court to determine if the province has the right to separate unilaterally under domestic or international law.

Ottawa is challenging the separatist argument of Quebec's right to separate regardless of the views of the rest of Canada. If the court takes Ottawa's side, the federal government will be able to reject a slim 'yes' vote in the referendum.

Paul Nesbitt-Larking, an assistant professor of political science at Huron College, said the principle reason for Ottawa's action is to establish a framework from which they will be able to fight the next referendum.

"By going to the Supreme Court, Ottawa is trying to drive a wedge between the people and the government of Quebec," he said. "They need to remind the people of Quebec they have a political representative at two levels – the provincial and the federal government."

There will always be a debate as to what constitutes an adequate majority for separation and some separatists are likely to support and push for a referendum irrespective of what the polls, Nesbitt-Larking said.

When asked if it is up to Quebec to choose to separate, Nesbitt-Larking said it all depends on what we mean by Quebeckers – the political community or the people? "It is the people versus their representative and there is a critical distinction."

Separation involves many legal and political issues and the Supreme Court decision might also clarify some expectations of what would happen if there was a 'yes' vote in the next referendum, said Western political science professor Sid Noel.

The actual 'yes' or 'no' question of separation is ambiguous, Noel said. The aim is to push the Quebec government into asking a harder question so when there is another referendum, a narrow Yes-side vote would be seized upon by the separatists.

"There is no question that this is a Constitutional matter because the government is asking the court to interpret the Constitution – there are also political overtones, of course," said Western social professor of law Robert Hawkins.

Nesbitt-Larking said this is and is not a political issue. A political community of people must exist prior to a legal constitution but the issue of politics gets brought in when people get defensive when asked if they are being political.

"Quebec is a terrible legal case, and there is no lawyer in Canada that believes that they will win it," Hawkins said.

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Copyright The Gazette 1998