Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebec separation? Impossible

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Just in time to celebrate the national holiday, a Postmedia/Ipsos Reid poll arrives with news one in two Canadians couldn't care less if the country breaks apart.

I don't think that's true. When 47 per cent of Canadians -- 49 per cent of those outside Quebec -- tell the pollster they "don't really care" if Quebec separates, I think they are speaking in code.

I think what they mean is they are unwilling to rush about making burnt offerings to the province in hopes of dissuading it.

Still, it was enough to feed an emerging media narrative: the Parti Québécois is about to take power, another referendum is inevitable, and the country is not "ready." Worse, with both the federal and provincial governments in bad odour in the province, there is no one to "speak for Canada," no one to lead the traditional chorus of "please forgive us, we'll try to do better."

The country is "sleepwalking into a perfect storm," the political scientist Donald Savoie writes, hetero-metaphorically. Others are more laconic. "A turning point may have been reached that makes the uncoupling inevitable," writes the National Post's John Ivison.

"It's possible the next referendum battle won't be in Quebec (but) in English Canada," writes my Postmedia colleague Michael Den Tandt, who interprets the poll's message as "don't let the door hit you on the way out."

Which is no bad thing, in game theory terms: it might deter soft-nationalist Quebecers from voting Yes strategically, in hopes of a "better deal."

But what if that 49 per cent really mean it?

That would indeed be worrying. At a minimum, it would suggest they had not thought this through. The separation of Quebec would not be the neat excision of a troublesome appendage so many seem to think it would be. Nor would it be merely to yield control over a substantial part of Canadian territory.

It would be the end of Canada.

Such a fundamental breach in the confederation bargain would inevitably trigger a demand to renegotiate the terms of association among the shards that remained, with no assurance of success.

Hey Alberta, how do you feel about Ontario having half the seats in Parliament?

Whatever emerged from that, it would not be the country we have now.

Fortunately, such a scenario is impossible. Not unlikely: impossible.

Even if the PQ were to win the election, and even if it could persuade Quebecers to overcome their visceral aversion to another referendum, and even if it were to ask a clear question and to win a clear majority, the next stop would be nowhere. Whatever conditions the Clarity Act may impose on the federal government's participation in negotiations on secession, the real obstacle is more profound. The federal government has no legal authority to negotiate any such thing. Nor does anyone: there is no duly constituted representative of "the rest of Canada," nor any means of duly constituting one.

Suppose there were. Even to enter into negotiations on such an extraordinary matter as the dissolution of the federation would require -- legally, arguably; politically, certainly -- a referendum of the rest of Canada, to mirror the one in Quebec.

The negotiations, if begun, would have to reach agreement on a truly dizzying number of issues, all of them zero-sum, with demands for input at every stage from multiple parties. Even if these could be sorted out, the result would require ratification in every province, very likely by referendum. All this, remember, while a simultaneous set of negotiations was under way on the shape of what remained.

Of course, negotiations on the terms of secession, to be meaningful, imply either side can walk away from the table if its demands are not met. But if Quebec could secede without negotiation, why would it negotiate? And if "Canada" did not have to consent to its own demise, why would it? So the more likely scenario is a speedy breakdown in negotiations, followed by a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI), much as Jacques Parizeau has told us he had planned in 1995.

But a UDI could not possibly succeed -- not with the sort of 50 per cent-plus margin that is the outer limits of separatist fantasy.

You think Greece would be plunged into chaos over a relatively simple matter such as scrapping the euro? Try to imagine the madness that would follow a UDI, that is a deliberate break with the rule of law: capital flight, bank failures, the courts clogged with federalists petitioning for their rights, the Cree taking down hydro towers, and organized crime taking advantage of the situation in whatever ways it could. No country would recognize such a regime -- not with Canada contesting its legitimacy, along with half of Quebec. Nor is there any evidence Quebecers are prepared to embark upon such adventures. Quebec is a modern, bourgeois, law-abiding, mortgage-holding society. It is not the cradle of revolutions.

So no, I am not worried about "who will speak for Canada."

The next referendum, if it comes, will be unlike any previous. As the feds are legally barred from accepting the result of anything but a clear question, they can scarcely participate in a referendum that did not ask one. But the PQ will never ask such a question, if for no other reason than because Ottawa insists it must. We are far more likely, then, to see some sort of preposterous charade along the lines of "do you agree that Quebec should assume such and such powers" -- no more illegitimate than previous questions, but without the sanction of precedent. In which event the proper response of federal leaders is to ignore it. It always was.

Andrew Coyne is a national

columnist for Postmedia News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 j11

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