One of the world's long-running political dramas, Quebec separatism, reached another climax late in February with arguments before Canada's Supreme Court on the question of secession. The federal government itself put forward the question, asking for clarification on three points of law: (1) Can Quebec unilaterally secede under the Canadian Constitution? (2) Can the province do so under international law? (3) If Canadian and international law conflict on this issue, which should govern?
This tactic by Canada's central authority marks a break with past strategies that have attempted to politically accommodate Quebec's separatists in order to hold the country together. Taking the matter to the high court suggests many federalists believe it's time to stop giving ground and establish some ground rules.
The court is expected to find no constitutional avenue for unilateral secession. But the Quebec nationalists who run the provincial government profess little worry. They dispute the court's jurisdiction in the first place. Premier Lucien Bouchard has declared that the "the last word depends on the people of Quebec."
The people's word was heard loudly in 1995, when the province's voters nearly passed a referendum calling for Quebec independence. The "yes" camp lost by only one-half of 1 percent. Critics of the referendum point out, though, that its wording was loaded in the separatists' favor. That vote sparked strong criticism of the federal government for being blas about an imminent crisis - disunion.
Hence the push to make it clear to Quebec that withdrawal from Canada is not something done in a vacuum. It affects all Canadians. There are constitutional questions to be answered, and wide-ranging effects to be considered. Would the rest of Canada maintain the economic relationships that Quebec separatists take for granted? Would the many Quebecers who favor Canadian union seek to partition the province? Significant portions of Quebec's population - a majority of Montrealers and the Cree Indians, for example - strongly oppose separation.
Most important, the historical, cultural, and linguistic issues that drive Quebec separatism can't justify breaking up a nation that has proven itself a beacon of democracy, cultural inclusiveness, and international good citizenship. Canada has problems, and many of its citizens have grievances. But, like its neighbor to the south, it is conducting an "experiment" in popular self-government - one that's well worth perpetuating.
The current constitutional deliberations, together with their political accompaniment (which could include new provincial elections in Quebec and yet another referendum within the year), should greatly clarify the issues for all Canadians. We hope to see the curtain rise soon on a stronger unified Canada.