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Sat. June 22, 2024
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Independence Drifts Away: Quebec Will Stay in Canada
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Bu Jan Nalaskowski

This year’s general elections in Quebec saw an unprecedented defeat of pro-independence incumbents. On April 7 Parti Québécois secured the least electoral support in its history. Almost 42 percent of voters chose the liberal PLQ instead, granting it 56 percent of the parliamentary seats. Being able to form a majority government, the federalist Quebec Liberal Party will put the case of independence on hold. The question of Quebecan sovereignty has had its ebbs and flows but this time separating from Canada will be more difficult than ever.  In Europe, Crimea’s “mock” referendum and its decision to join the Russian Federation is likely to prompt regulation of independence declarations worldwide and give priority to constitutional arrangements in which separatist regions dwell. Since sovereignty of Quebec has been counting on a small margin of supporters and legal technicalities vis-à-vis the government in Ottawa, the prospect of independence has drifted away together with Parti Québécois’ popular support.

There are many indicators pointing to Crimea’s decision to join the Russian Federation being made in a “mock” referendum. The questions presented to voters did not assume maintaining the current status quo, with either autonomy within Ukraine or unification with Russia being the only options. The voting took place under military presence of Russian and separatist soldiers and in the atmosphere of pervasive threat. The abruptness and presumptuousness of the referendum shocked public opinion and induced many Crimeans to boycott it. Finally, the referendum violated both Ukrainian constitution and international law. The former says that all citizens of Ukraine should have been allowed to vote, the latter guards territorial integrity and forbids secession.

It would be unfair to fully equate the case of Quebecan independence with developments in Crimea. However, there are some similarities. The sovereignty-related question asked in the 1980 referendum was lengthy and somehow confusing. The Canadian Clarity Act from 2000 required that question in a referendum should be plain and that the outcome should represent a clear majority of voters, with the parliament of Canada being in decisive power to determine whether these conditions were met. In response, Quebec enacted “Bill 99” which highlights the right to declare independence by fifty percent plus one of participating Quebecan voters. The legality of both acts is questioned and the Quebecan right to secede is highly disputable. In case of unilateral declaration of independence by Montreal, Ottawa is most likely to make sure that it is perceived by public opinion as a violation of international law. It would be much easier for Canada now, after Crimea’s unfortunate developments, to reclaim federal authority over its problematic province. 
Another similarity between Crimean and Quebecan cases is the situation of leading minorities. In Crimea, Tatars have largely boycotted the referendum. They have also started to seek international support for their plans to increase autonomy, possibly by calling another plebiscite. In Quebec, the First Nations’ leader Ghislain Picard claims that Aboriginal Peoples are not bound to prospect referendum’s outcome. In 1995 First Nations conducted their own polling in which they overwhelmingly rejected province’s independence. Apart from Tatars, the outcome of Crimean referendum also neglects the voice of local Ukrainians.

Quebecan sovereignty is pushed by Parti Québécois, relying on majority in parliament and slight margin of popular support in referendum. Thus, the opinion of English-speaking Quebecan population is neglected, even though the loyalty to Ottawa is widely expressed. To date, the strategy of the Parti Québécois has relied mainly on highlighting cultural and historical differences of the province, assuaging concerns about future economic prosperity, and engaging into more or less stringent arguments with government in Ottawa. First, convincing Quebecans by appealing to their Francophone legacy that they really need an independent country proves to be continuously challenging. Once again, these arguments do not satisfy most English-speakers and Aboriginal People. Second, quarrels and legal disputes with the federal government have aimed to make sovereignty achievable even if chosen by small margin of secession enthusiasts. Since the independence referenda will now enjoy more public attention, these technical nuances may no longer work for Parti Québécois. Third, the sovereignty issue loses ground when economic performance is in question. In March this year separatist leader Pauline Marois said that after declaration of independence, Quebec should remain in the monetary union with Canada, thus suggesting that the wealthy and prosperous parent-state can guard the province’s economic stability. Similar statements send evocative signals that independence may indeed be an unnecessary move.

With the Quebec Liberal Party in charge for the next electoral period it is very probable that the province will find an agreement with Ottawa, codifying the question of sovereignty once and for all. One option could be to mimic the case of Scottish devolution referendum from 1979, when the support for formation of an assembly had to be expressed by forty percent of the whole electorate, rather than majority of voters. A similar solution would be fair for non-Francophone Quebecans and should mitigate discrimination accusations. On the other side of the spectrum, Ottawa will probably keep demonstrating that independence of Quebec can become an economic burden for its citizens. Deprived of compelling circumstances, sovereignty begins to look more and more like Parti Québécois’ private endeavor rather than a solution to Quebecans’ problems.

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