Many Canadians still have sharp memories of the Oct. 30, 1995, Quebec sovereignty referendum. Now, what the experience taught our nation may be of great use to other countries.
Quebec voters were asked by their government, led by the Parti Quebecois, to decide if the province should assert national sovereignty, arguably with some form of ongoing political and economic association with Canada. The Yes votes in the referendum totalled 49.42 per cent and the No votes totalled 50.58 per cent. Voter turnout was the highest in Quebec’s democratic history – 93.52 per cent.
Directly as a result of the referendum, the Canadian government unilaterally recognized Quebec as a distinct society.
Then the government launched a Supreme Court of Canada reference in 1998, which resulted in a decision that unilateral succession, as contemplated in the Quebec referendum, was illegal.
Subsequently, Parliament passed the Clarity Act, which the Senate approved on June 29, 2000. The act owed its intellectual rigour to political science professor, Liberal MP and then-minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Stephane Dion. Dion largely stick-handled the act’s creation and passage.
The law establishes the conditions under which the government of Canada would enter into negotiations with any province, potentially leading to departing Confederation. The key condition is that Canada will only negotiate with a province if a clear majority of that province’s voters had already voted for independence on a clearly-worded referendum question.
Sovereigntist sympathies in Quebec began their decline with the passage of the act and, arguably, its contribution to Canadian unity has been pronounced ever since.
Presumably, the base conditions of the Clarity Act (that a clear majority have voted on a clearly-worded question) can be broadly applied in today’s fracturing world.
Just as worthy of application is Canada’s proclivity to send in the bureaucrats rather than the riot police and the army when succession and sovereignty become topics of political interest.
The Spanish region of Catalonia is a logical and immediate case for Canadian measures. The political situation there seems especially tense and fluid, as the Spanish government seeks to manage Catalonian demands before regional government elections are held on Dec. 21. One hopes that rational thought dominates in the interim, and that all parties (especially those that advocate independence) participate in the elections.
The rest of Europe seems firmly on the side of Spanish unity, and the strong economic and social mechanisms of the European Union also favour Spanish unity.
Just as in Canada and Quebec, the national-regional tensions have a long history in Spain.
By Clarity Act standards, Catalans don’t yet have a clear majority. The independence parties collectively had about 48 per cent of the popular vote in the most recent election, but this resulted in a majority of parliamentary seats. This has allowed independence spokespersons to claim that a majority desires the pursuit of independence.
The Spanish government could embrace the Clarity Act process to enable a Catalan referendum on Dec. 21, with a clear question that would disabuse the public of worries of chicanery.
What’s to be lost from such an approach?
A uniquely Canadian solution might also help the long-term residents of Hong Kong, who are reportedly consulting with Catalans about how to impede the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of totally absorbing Hong Kong into China. With their unique exposure to British rule from 1841 to 1997, Hong Kong became a safe haven for political progressives and Chinese political refugees. And via the process of “synarchy,” the British elites gave them a significant role in what really was an elite consensual government.
Many Hong Kong residents have a broad understanding of British parliamentary government and the rule of law. They don’t favour co-option or coercion into the communist one-party state. While it’s harder to conceptualize its application here than in Spain, the Clarity Act process could also provide Hong Kong with a rational way to sort out its political future, depending on the will of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.
The same arguments for clarity and majority could also apply to the Scots, whose evident choice for their economic future was not Brexit. The growing Scottish independence movement could advocate a Clarity Act approach as England struggles to come to terms with exiting the European Union.
Back in 2000, who could have foreseen such global potential for an uniquely Canadian approach? Perhaps Stephane Dion.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.