While the rest of Canada expressed its fatigue with constitutional matters, the alienation of Québec, partly the result of acrimony generated by the debate over distinct society, brought the separatist PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS back into power. Premier Jacques PARIZEAU promptly promised that a referendum on Québec separation would be held some time during 1995. In preparation for the referendum, draft legislation was prepared and a series of public consultations was held. The referendum was originally scheduled for the spring of 1995 but was delayed until 30 October 1995. The question posed in the referendum was as follows: "Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on 12 June 1995?"
The Bill referred to in this question was Bill 1, an Act respecting the future of Québec (including a declaration of sovereignty in its preamble) and the agreement of 12 June 1995, referred to in the question was the Text of the Agreement Between the Parti Québécois and the Action démocratique du Québec ratified by Premier Parizeau, Lucien BOUCHARD (leader of the Bloc Québécois) and Mario Dumont (the leader of the Action démocratique du Québec). The Referendum itself was conducted under the provisions of the Québec Referendum Act.
At the beginning of the referendum campaign, the so-called "No" side (opposed to separation) had a substantial lead in the polls. But as the campaign progressed, and particularly with the assumption of the leadership of the "Yes" side by Bouchard from Parizeau during the final three weeks of the campaign, the "Yes" side gained momentum. Ultimately, after an emotional and somewhat controversial campaign, the "No" side achieved victory by a narrow majority of 50.56%.
Following the vote, there was considerable controversy relating to the counting of the ballots (ie, the large number of "spoiled" ballots), the enumeration of eligible voters and other concerns. Parizeau resigned and Bouchard assumed the leadership of the Parti Québécois and became premier of Québec. He had announced, prior to becoming premier, his intention to conduct another referendum on separation in 1997.
During the final days of the campaign, federal politicians announced their intention of meeting some Québec concerns. For example, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said that he would take measures toward recognizing Québec's "distinct society" and guaranteeing Québec a de facto veto over constitutional changes.
Chrétien created a special Cabinet committee to formulate a new constitutional proposal. The proposal that emerged, primarily designed to address Québec's long-standing concerns, provided for three non-constitutional initiatives to be enacted by the House of Commons.
The first initiative, in the form of a motion of the House of Commons, would recognize Québec as a distinct society within Canada (ie, a society characterized by the French language, its unique culture and a civil law system). The motion was adopted by Parliament.
A second initiative would grant a veto to the Western region, the Atlantic region, Ontario and Québec over all future constitutional changes to national institutions such as the Senate, the creation of new provinces and any amendments regarding the distribution of powers. That is, for a constitutional change to be effected, the consent would be required of any two of the four western provinces provided those two constituted 50% of the population of the West, any two of the Atlantic provinces provided those two provinces constituted 50% of the population of the Atlantic region, Ontario and Québec. At the insistence of BC, this was changed so that BC became a separate region and would have a veto over major constitutional change. The Prairie provinces would also have a veto in that consent would now be required of any two Prairie provinces provided those constituted 50% of the population of the Prairie region. Demographically, this in effect gives the province of Alberta a veto.
Under the third initiative, the federal government would give up any role it plays in labour/market training, apprenticeship programs, co-operative education programs and workplace-based training, thus allowing the provinces to assume this responsibility.
None of these initiatives promise any end to Canada's constitutional uncertainty, particularly with the prospect of another referendum in Québec. This uncertainty has led to current litigation in the courts as to the legal rules regarding the rights of a province to secede, under domestic constitutional law and under public international law. In short, the possible separation of Québec remains, as it has over the past quarter century, a defining feature of Canadian politics, constitutional law and history.
Author GERALD L. GALL
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