Canada Asks Its Court Whether Quebec Can Legally Just Walk Away

By Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 30, 1996 | Go to article overview

Canada Asks Its Court Whether Quebec Can Legally Just Walk Away


Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The Canadian government is asking the nation's Supreme Court to rule whether Quebec can legally declare itself independent from the federation, as Quebec's separatist government argues.

Warning that the country could be thrown into chaos if Quebec one day declared independence unilaterally, Justice Minister Alan Rock told Parliament last Thursday that a ruling from the high court was desperately needed to clarify the issue for Quebeckers and all Canadians.

"This issue is of enormous significance," Mr. Rocks said. A declaration of independence "would undermine political stability, interrupt the prevailing order, and cast into doubt the interests and the rights of Quebeckers and all Canadians," he said. Quebec separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard immediately dismissed the move as politically motivated and meaningless, and said Quebec would boycott the proceedings by not arguing its side of the case. "There is only one tribunal that will decide Quebec's political future - that is the Quebec people," Mr. Bouchard told reporters in Quebec City. Under Canadian law, the federal government has the right to seek legal opinions on important issues from the nine-member Supreme Court. But it will be only the 75th time in history such an opinion has been sought. The ruling will be one of the most important in the court's history. And Prime Minister Jean Chretien's decision to proceed in this legal arena is a critical strategic change in the decades-long battle to keep Quebec within Canada, analysts say. "This is the first time the government of Canada has ever admitted that the question of separation is to be contemplated seriously," says Hugh Thorburn, a political scientist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. "The government's approach has always been: 'This is a crazy idea, and people will get over it....' Now they're saying: 'This is serious.' " Quebeckers voted in a referendum last October to remain part of Canada, but by only the slimmest of majorities: less than one percentage point. That near miss emboldened separatists, dismayed federalists, and led to Bouchard's ascension to power earlier this year as provincial premier and leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois. Rock's legal challenge comes now, he says, because assertions that Canadian law and the federal Constitution do not apply to Quebec's self-determination have been growing in intensity. A Quebec court case this spring challenged Quebec's right to secede. Lawyers for Quebec's government argued for the first time that Canadian law had no relevance to the issue of secession. …

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