Why Quebec Matters

By Max Fawcett | October 20, 2006

In Canada, Liberals are often accused of being unprincipled opportunists, and for good reason. The Liberal Party of Canada has, after all, alternately stood both for and against free trade, greater integration with the United States, fiscal conservatism, and greater support for our military, and those are just some of the long list of policy positions on which Liberals have found themselves on both sides. Policy, for most Liberals, is at best a noble distraction, something best left to wonks and academics. Power is their passion, and the federal Liberals have rarely allowed a principle or a policy get in the way of its pursuit.

That said, the Liberals are not without a rudder, blind though they may be sometimes to its existence. National unity, and more recently the federal government’s approach to Quebec nationalism, has defined, if not determined, their success. Under the leadership of strong federalists Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien the Liberals flourished, staying in power for twenty five of their twenty six years and in a majority position for twenty three of those. Guided by John Turner and Paul Martin, leaders who were more sympathetic to Quebec’s demands for cultural and constitutional recognition, the Liberals suffered almost immediate defeats at the polls, with Turner contributing all of four days of power and Martin hanging on for a relatively lengthy two years, most of which were spent in a minority position.

This admittedly crude political calculus leads naturally to the current Liberal leadership race, which features two candidates sympathetic to the position taken by Martin and Turner, one with particularly strong ties to the Trudeau-Chretien era, and one who has no position on or experience whatsoever in the matter. Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae are the former, with Ignatieff indicating a Mulroney-esque willingness to re-open the constitution to address Quebec’s concerns and Rae with a past – one that should be more damning for card-carrying Liberals than anything he did as Premier of Ontario – that includes support for both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Gerard Kennedy, the latter, is a former Ontario Minister of Education without a post-secondary degree and a habit of identifying himself through his Western roots.

Then there’s Stéphane Dion, the author of the Clarity Act and the man former Prime Minister Jean Chretien coaxed out of academia to refine the federal government’s position on Quebec sovereignty after the 1995 referendum scare. Ironically, Dion’s opponents have criticized him for his supposed lack of flexibility on the matter of federalism, but it is precisely that inflexibility that made him so successful as Jean Chretien’s sovereignty lieutenant in the late 1990s. Take, for example, his woefully underappreciated series of letters to Quebec’s leading sovereigntists, in which he destroyed the intellectual foundations of their arguments for separation with breathtaking ease.

In his first letter, addressed to Premier Lucien Bouchard on August 11, 1997, Dion asserted that “your argument is based on three rules that you claim are universally accepted: that a unilateral declaration of independence is supported by international law; that a majority of “50% plus one” is a sufficient threshold for secession; and that international law rejects any changes to the borders of the entity attempting to secede. We are convinced that such assertions are contradicted by international law and state practice.” With respect to the first item, that a unilateral declaration of independence respects international laws, Dion argued that “there is no democratic country in the world where the government of a province or other constituent entity has been allowed to determine these procedures [for secession] unilaterally. The vast majority of international law experts…believe that the right to declare secession unilaterally does not belong to constituent entities of a democratic country such as Canada.” On the matter of whether 50% + 1 constitutes a clear majority, Dion observed that “you yourself acknowledged on June 15, 1994, that an attempt at sovereignty with a slim majority would adversely affect “the political cohesion of Quebec.” And on September 12, 1992, in the case of a simple constitutional referendum (on the Charlottetown Accord), Mr. Bernard Landry [then the deputy premier] linked the legitimacy of a “yes” vote to obtaining a substantial majority in Quebec.” Finally, on the matter of territorial integrity, Dion noted that “there is neither a paragraph nor a line in international law that protects Quebec’s territory but not Canada’s. International experience demonstrates that the borders of the entity seeking independence can be called into question, sometimes for reasons based on democracy. For example, you are no doubt aware that France insisted on portioning the island of Mayotte from the Comoros at the time the latter gained independence because the residents of Mayotte unequivocally expressed their desire to maintain their link with France.”

The Tyee’s Richard Warnica wrote that “it was that last line, with its casual reference to an obscure moment in international law, which was most indicative of the Dion style.” That style produced Dion’s most devastating letter, a response to Bernard Landry’s assertion that Quebec did not need the approval of Canada to separate. Dion wrote that “you claimed that, ‘to use one example out of fifty,’ Germany recognized Slovenia as an independent state within hours of its declaration of independence. Here are the actual facts on Slovenia…Despite the almost unanimous support of its population, Slovenia had to wait until the international community had determined that the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation was irreversible before obtaining international recognition. The case of Slovenia shows how difficult it is to obtain international recognition. Our fellow citizens have the right to know that. I am at your disposal to talk about the forty-nine other cases of international recognition you had in mind.” Game, set, match.

Some have argued that Dion lacks the personality necessary to win a federal election, although the last Liberal leader was chosen almost entirely based upon his supposedly sparkling personality and that didn’t exactly work out too well. Others have hinted that Dion’s strong Quebecois accent will turn off English Canadian voters, although his English compares favourably with Jean Chretien’s — he of three majority governments and overwhelming majorities in Ontario — notoriously butchered syntax and pronunciation. Some will even argue that the selection of another Quebecker will permanently alienate Western Canadians, but Paul Martin did his level best to reach out to Westerners and it netted him first a minority government and then an outright defeat.

These arguments against Dion’s candidacy are, however, at best superficial quibbling and at worst outright misrepresentations. The bottom line, as it were, is that Liberals have not won a majority government in almost seventy years without a strong federalist leader at the helm, and Stéphane Dion is the only candidate with a track record on that crucial issue that Liberals can trust. It is his studied familiarity with the federalist position and not fuzzy concepts like style or poll-driven notions of winnability that should be foremost on the minds of Liberal delegates as they make their important decisions in November. If it isn’t, they’ll likely be spending more time in the political penalty box.


Toronto, October 19, 2006 – 1,189 w.


  • Max Fawcett

    Max Fawcett is the former editor of the Chetwynd Echo, a weekly newspaper in the small northern town of Chetwynd, B.C. He currently lives in Edmonton, and works as the managing editor of Alberta Venture Magazine.

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