Colombo Telegraph

The Quebec Election In Canada And Federalism Lesson For Sri Lanka

By 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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