Quebec Apart: Bar Rises Court Rules Province Cannot Legally Secede without Agreement with the Rest of Canada

Article excerpt

In a ruling that toughens the task for Quebec's separatists, Canada's Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision yesterday that Quebec has no right to secede unilaterally from the federation.

Under the ruling, Quebec is allowed to secede, but it can do so only after agreement with the federal government and the other nine provinces. Separatists had claimed Quebec can secede if the province votes to do so in a referendum.

"On the face of it, it seems to be a balanced judgment," says Ghislain Otis, a law professor at Laval University in Quebec City. "The court spelled out under what conditions {secession} could actually take place." Because the ruling was balanced, he adds, it could be difficult for the Quebec government to use it as an election issue, though that may well happen.

Quebec separatists are expected to use the decision to bolster their cause of forming an independent country. Constitutional lawyers in Montreal say it is the first time a court in a Western democracy has ruled on the right to secession.

Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard may use the decision to call an early election in hopes of bolstering chances for a referendum.

Quebec's government was studying the 78-page decision before making any announcement.

Separatists in Quebec have gambled twice before that public opinion was in favor of independence, but they lost both times. The initial defeat came in 1980, four years after the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) was first elected under Premier Rene Levesque and separation became an issue. The federalist side won 60 per cent of the vote.

The referendum of October 1995 was a different story. It was almost a tie, with the federalists winning by about 55,000 votes.

Court prodded to act

Following that close call, a federalist lawyer from Quebec City, Guy Bertrand, began a personal campaign in the courts, seeking a ruling that Quebec did not have the legal right to separate from Canada. The federal government was forced by that move to seek the advice of the nine-member Supreme Court on the constitutional issue.

After the ruling, Mr. Bertrand said that "it refutes what Quebec nationalists have been saying for 30 years," that Quebeckers are an oppressed, colonial minority. "The court says that you cannot ignore the Constitution."

The court's decision was supposed to bring clarity to the issue. "This is not a declaration about what Quebec can do, but how Quebec can do it," says Bruce Ryder, a professor at the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. …