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 Chrtien'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.