15 April, 2024


The Quebec Election In Canada And Federalism Lesson For Sri Lanka

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Earlier this month the Province of Quebec, in Canada, had its one-day election after less than a month of campaigning.  As I have discussed in a separate article, India is just half way through its five-week long election ritual. The outcome of the Indian elections is widely expected to be a defeat for the ruling Congress alliance and victory for the opposition BJP alliance. The results in Quebec were a huge surprise with the governing Parti Quebecois of French Canadian separatists suffering a crushing defeat and the opposition Quebec Liberal Party securing a spectacular victory.

There is very little to compare between the French Canadian Province of 8 million people and the mass of humanity that is India. Yet there are commonalities between Canada and India as two reasonably successful federal states and societies, and in the functional containment of their internal national problems. Federalism, separatism and secularism were wedge issues in the Quebec election, and they are so but for different reasons in the Indian elections. The over-determining issues, however, are the economy and jobs. Corruption was big time on the election radar in Quebec and is even more so in India.

Along with Sri Lanka, Canada and India are long standing Commonwealth members. Soon after independence, Sri Lanka was a model state for ethnic co-habitation and economic potential in the Commonwealth. Pierre Trudeau held up the “State of Ceylon” accommodating two languages and four religions as an example for Quebec and Canada. This was when Trudeau was a trenchant political critic and before he won a seat in the Federal Parliament and went on to become one of Canada’s more famous Prime Ministers. Sri Lankans, or Ceylonese then, did not know much about Canada, and not enough about India – ignorantly laughing at their huge neighbor for its poverty and its English accent. 60 years later, Canada and India are mature success stories in their own ways, while Sri Lanka has the Commonwealth Chairmanship to boast of, but little else. Our cricketers, not the Board of Control or Selectors, are a different story and their well-deserved and long-awaited success in Bangladesh is doubly sweet because unlike in past finals there were no Rajapaksa government poobahs in Dhaka to bask in our cricketers’ glory.

Quebec and Canada

The defeat of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) does not mean the end of the separatist ethos in Quebec, but it is the worst setback that the Quebec separatist movement has had since the PQ was founded in 1970 and formed its first Provincial government six years later in 1976. The real story here is the success of Canadian federalism in containing the separatist aspirations within democratic limits and letting the people of Quebec themselves to democratically decide to stay in Canada as opposed to pursuing the separatist option. The first lesson for Sri Lanka could be that Canada has decided not to use constitutional barriers or military force, to keep Quebec in Canada if its people wanted to leave Canada. At the height of the separatist movement in the 1980s, Prime Minister Trudeau made it clear that if Quebec democratically chose to leave, Canada must not try to prevent it by force. A proud French Canadian he went on to say that he would continue to live in Montreal (Quebec’s main, and North America’s most European, City) even if Quebec were to separate. Yet, it was Trudeau who almost singlehandedly frustrated the separatist scheme of his compatriots. The Canadian genius has been in giving the power and space to French Canadian leaders to take the fight to the separatists in their own Province instead of turning it into a fight between English Canada and French Canada.

There have been two referendums in Quebec so far on the question Quebec’s option of leaving Canada, first in 1980 and again in 1995. Both were called by PQ governments, and in both instances the question put to the people by the PQ was not a clear choice, between leaving Canada and not leaving Canada, but a conveniently confusing in-between choice: separation, but not full separation. The PQ called it “sovereignty association”, an arrangement in which the PQ told Quebeckers that they could have the best of both worlds: they could have a new country of their own without losing their Canadian passports and the Canadian currency. Apart from the unclear question, there was also the matter of the kind of majority that would be considered adequate for part of a country to decide to go on its own. The PQ of course insisted that a simple majority (50% plus one) was democratic and sufficient regardless of the gravity of the question. Most others including Quebecers did not agree. The fact of the matter was that the PQ knew that it could not have the result it was hoping for with a clear question and a clear majority.

The Clarity Act

The PQ lost both referendums, the first (1980) by a wide margin with Prime Minister Trudeau leading the federalist campaign, and the second (1995) by the narrowest of margins, with Trudeau in retirement. After the 1995 referendum, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien and his Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stephan Dion, both French Canadians, took a number of steps to ensure that a clear question and a clear majority will be required for a valid referendum not only in Quebec but also in any other Province. These requirements are included in the so called Clarity Act, which was enacted in 2000 after a Supreme Court Reference in 1998.

In a famous ruling that is known to constitutional scholars everywhere, the full bench of nine judges of the Canadian Supreme Court that included the Chief Justice and two other judges from the Province of Quebec held as follows: Quebec cannot unilaterally secede from Canada under international law. However, if Quebec expressed a clear will to secede, the Government of Canada must enter into negotiations with Quebec. The Parliament of Canada has the power to determine if the referendum question was clear enough to warrant negotiations. The court left the quantum of majority to be decided by legislators. The Clarity Act has not specified a majority size but a super majority is understood to be required.

The PQ and most Quebec politicians have rejected the Clarity Act but they know that they cannot do things unilaterally and that without a clear question and a clear majority they will not have anyone to deal with them bilaterally, or multilaterally. After the passage of the Clarity Act, President Clinton in a speech in Montreal, with the PQ Premier listening from the audience, made it clear that the US was in full agreement with the Clarity Act.

More than the Clarity Act, global and generational changes along with the positive experiences of Canadian federalism have seriously dampened the enthusiasm for the separatist option in Quebec. Quebec has its Provincial government, and the political parties in Quebec are organizationally independent of the federal political parties, which is a crucial ingredient for the success of federalism in Canada. At the federal level, Quebec is assured of a proportion of seats in the federal House of Commons and the Senate, and three of the nine Supreme Court judges are required to be from the Quebec bench or bar. Bilingualism is a fact of federal government life and this has meant more opportunities for bilingual Quebeckers (proportionately more French Canadians are bilingual than English Canadians) to find federal government jobs. The Quebec industry in resources, manufacturing and engineering has come of age and is internationally competitive. While the push for separatism has partly arisen owing to these expansions and the organic confidence that comes with them, the same developments provide the experiential counter-push in support of federalism.

To the generation of Quebeckers born after 1970 and maturing in the age of globalization, referendum memories and sovereignty debates have become irrelevant and anachronistic. This is a major worry for the diehard PQ supporters most of whom were born before 1960. They know time is against them and that they must have the next referendum sooner rather than later to have one last shot at their receding dream. The PQ has been out of power from 2003 to 2012, and formed a new minority government after the 2012 election that saw the Quebec Liberals sent home packing on allegations of widespread corruption involving organized crime, government contracts, and contributions to political parties by winning contractors. The PQ could have continued as a minority government, but it decided to go for a rush election to form a majority government with the ulterior motive of holding the next referendum during its tenure in office.

The PQ knew that any mention of a referendum would drive the voters insane, and so it created a new wedge issue in the guise of a Secular Charter that would bar public wearing of religious dress or symbols by government employees. It was a cynically clever scheme using the pretext of secularism and the subtext of racism that was intended to win votes among a majority of French Canadians. The ploy backfired when many leading Quebeckers, including Louise Arbour, and new immigrants attacked the proposed Charter. The PQ also enlisted as one of its candidates Quebec media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau, a hugely wealthy union basher, who promptly declared his intention to “make Quebec a country”. The referendum cat was out of the bag to the horror of voters, and the sight of Peladeau being crowned as a leading PQ member riled the trade unions who have been traditional supporters of the PQ. In the end, after being too sure of its victory at the start of the campaign, the PQ ended up losing the election rather badly. And the Province has a new Quebec Liberal Premier in Philippe Couillard, a Neurosurgeon turned politician and a staunch federalist. Mr. Couillard has won a strong victory to form a majority government and put the separatist specter in deep freeze at least for the next five years.

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Latest comments

  • 7

    This proves the sacredness of the right of self determination which need not and in most cases will not lead to secession. If Tamils in Sri Lanka are given sufficient autonomy, the chances are nine out of ten that they will opt to remain a part of Sri Lanka than separate. This is true of Tamilnadu as well in which State the people fully realise that they stand to gain ( they have already gained a lot) a lot more by remaining a part of India than going separate. They have a huge market to share, their parched lands can gain by sharing waters from the Ganges and a lot more benefits in due course. The situation for the Tamils in Sri Lanka will be similar. If not for the chauvinistic bigots in the South, Sri Lanka will have a strong potential for a steady progress.

    Sengodan. M

  • 1

    “If Tamils in Sri Lanka are given sufficient autonomy, the chances are nine out of ten that they will opt to remain a part of Sri Lanka than separate.”

    What a load of bull? If Tamils are given any autonomy we could see all the “better pasture” searching and LTTE loving diaspora Tamils joining the band wagon to return to Sri Lanka.

    They will have many priorities:

    1)Get dual citizenship
    2)Buy land that is still quite cheap with the money they will somehow
    smuggle in to the land.
    3)Open businesses, not because they love the land but because of the
    non-existent taxes and money laundering restrictions where they
    could smuggle the gains out of Sri Lanka make them have more money
    to spend in their adopted lands.
    4)Support and start new separatist movements. The difference with the
    last one will be that they will now be everywhere and will be better
    organized with more misinformed sympathizing foreign governments
    making more inroads to divide and make Sri Lanka a mess.
    5)And this time around there will not be Nanthikadal. They will
    infiltrate the entire country.

    Sri Lanka is too small to play games with by a bunch of so called do-gooders and by those who want to adopt what a bunch of Canadians did in a land 14,000 miles away. What Sri Lanka achieved since 2005, thrashing the terrorist – separatist for good, letting those who wanted better pastures get the heck out. The Sri Lankans should let them stay the heck out of this little land.

    Rajan Philips can keep his hair brained ideas to himself and to those in Canada and elsewhere. This is the land where the majority of the people are Sinhalese Buddhists and they in turn have been very tolerant to live with other minorities (whether by race or by religion). These minorities should never forget that.


    • 2

      It was late 70’s……JRJ won the election, economy was booming, Japanese goods were everywhere, high rises started…….
      JR sent a special team to wipeout the tamil rebels just starting in the north. Team arrested many, killed many, came back and submitted report mission accomplished. Even Tamil Nadu arrested and deported kuttimani and co.
      What happened? Did the Tamils stay quiet?

    • 2

      If Rajapakse’s can come from US, UK & Australia and get ministerial posts and involve war crimes and corrupting this island why cannot Tamils of this nation come back and rebuild the nation destroyed by Sinhala Buddhists fundamentalists. It is well established truth that Sinhala Buddhist Fundamentalism is the prime reason for the call for separation or any form of autonomy. This island belongs to Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims. No one has the right to call that it belongs to one race. One of the disgraced fact is that Sinhalese destroying the true Buddhism.

  • 2

    Federalism is the best solution for ethnic diversity.India and Canada have proved it beyond doubt. There are many examples in Europe as well.I cannot understand why the Sinhalese leaders are afraid of this concept. They mislead their uneducated masses with misinformation about Federalism.Unity in diversity is the best answer in multi ethnic communities. Why are the Sinhalese pulling this country down with the Tamils. With Federalism both communities can prosper without fighting, and without foreign interference.

    • 0

      Would in a federal set up all tamil speakers go to tamil speaking areas? Just wondering!

      Between a federal set up for SL at this moment is equal to seperate country. I dont support a federal set up rather full implementation. Even the 13A has emboldened the tamil politicians to be anti Lankan including Wiggie then what talk about federalism?

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