The Hypothetical Elephants
(On the Sherbrooke Declaration and the Clarity Act)

As is our wont in our negative election campaigns, our various parties go after each other with various attempts at knockout punches, often to the expense of real discussion of policy. You can see how this mentality has infected our debates when media pundits complain about there being "no knockout punches" after leaders' debates. Nigel Wright takes the stand in the Mike Duffy expenses trial, and the other parties pounce. Justin Trudeau calls some of his previous foreign policy initiatives "naive" and the other parties pounce. An NDP candidate makes a reasonable speculation on the science of global warming, and the other parties pounce.

Recently, to try and drive a wedge between the New Democratic Party's Quebec support and its support from elsewhere in the country, the Liberals have gone after the NDP's old "Sherbrooke Declaration" on the Quebec sovereignty issue, which the Liberals state means that a New Democratic government would accept a simple majority referendum vote to allow Quebec sovereignty to proceed and break up Canada. The Liberals tout their own Clarity Act (demanding a clear question and a clear majority) as almost magical elixir to stop current and future Quebec separatism, and accuse the New Democrats of wanting to break up Canada -- or at least standing idly by while the breakup of Canada happens.

Such an attitude is disingenuous on a number of levels. First of all, the only people who want to talk about Quebec separatism these days, it seems, are Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe, and Duceppe himself does not appear to be moving many people with him. For most Canadians, including Quebecois who may have voted "Yes" in the 1980 or 1995 referendums, Quebec sovereignty is not an issue, and we have more pressing questions to address than questioning the loyalty New Democrats have to Canada.

Yes, soft-sovereintists can be found in the ranks of the NDP's Quebec support, just as they were in Mulroney's Quebec caucus in 1984 and 1988. However, the fact that there is no current referendum, and the fact that these people are working with the system that we all share means that these individuals in Quebec are as Canadian as I am, and have as much right to express an opinion in our democracy as I do. Does their past disqualify them from their opinion or contributing to this country we share? I may disagree with some of their views, but I'm not so undemocratic to shout down everything they have to say.

Secondly, the Liberal Party's belief in the Clarity Act as the permanent solution to future problems with Quebec separatism seems charmingly naive. As a statement of the Canadian government's attitude following the 1995 referendum, it may have had value and merit, but laws that stay static do not adjust to changing realities, and their value can diminish. A document passed by the House of Commons nearly twenty years ago in the aftermath of a specific event is not, in and of itself, going to stop or hamper the actions of a renewed and emboldened separatist movement should one ever materialize. Even before the Clarity Act, the idea of separatism stepped outside the confines of our constitution and the law. That fact didn't stop the action from taking place, and the Clarity Act does not change that reality.

Name me a single separatist movement that had majority support within a region that was stopped simply because the country they wished to separate from passed legislation and said 'no'. And while you can argue that the 49.9% of a region that don't support separatism need to have their rights considered, and some of the 50.1% may not have understood the decision they were making, a simple piece of legislation isn't going to change that. A renewed separatist movement that manages to pass that 50% threshold will find ways to make its presence known, regardless of what the Clarity Act says. Whether they leave or not will not depend on the Clarity Act itself; it will come down to the measures the national government takes on the ground. In that respect, the Clarity Act is as useless a bit of kabuke as Stephen Harper's recent announcement of bringing in legislation making travel to terrorist hotspots a crime. It's redundant and useless piece of legislation that won't stop terrorism; at best, it lulls the government into a false sense of security that it's actually doing something, distracting us from the hard steps we will have to take if terrorism really does become a pressing issue here at home.

Don't get me wrong: national governments say 'no' to separatist movements all the time, but that isn't what decides whether a separatist-leaning region stays or goes. What will follow any marginally successful separatist vote is going to be quick thinking, fancy footwork, hard negotiation -- possibly even the presence of tanks and molotov cocktails -- that the Clarity Act will have no contribution to.

I agree, the mealy-mouthed legal trickery that the Parti Quebecois embarked on with its paragraph-long referendum questions in 1980 and 1995 were dishonest attempts to sweeten the bitter pill they were feeding to their electorate, but I think most everybody knew what the real question on the ballot was, and what they were voting for. Even if they didn't, the question of whether Quebec decides to stay or go won't be decided by just the events of a referendum, but by the actions that follow in its wake.

We are in an area where legal niceties don't necessarily apply, where both sides will make strident appeals to emotion, and quite possibly work outside of the legal apparatus. A hardline Parti Quebecois could conceivably avoid a referendum altogether and make a unilateral declaration of independence based on a landslide election victory. Whether they succeed depends on how strongly their supporters come out in support for that declaration, and whether or not either side responds with real force.

And i would hope that, well before then, cooler heads would prevail. But whether that happens depends on the quality of the leadership at that time, and the Clarity Act alone will do nothing to forestall such actions, or ensure that cooler heads will prevail.

Worse, there's no way to test this until we find ourselves in a situation where the Clarity Act is the least of our worries. It's like writing down on a piece of paper, "No Elephants Allowed", and then as long as no elephants show up, saying "See? The No Elephant edict worked!"

When the elephants do show up and start rampaging, that little sign is not going to help you. The only thing that will help you is a sudden and thorough knowledge of elephant behaviour, or possibly some high-dose tranquilizer guns.

So, speaking as an English Canadian who watched in horror as the 1995 referendum came down to the wire, the New Democrats' Sherbrooke Declaration doesn't phase me. Nor does the Liberals' Clarity Act particularly comfort me.

We are dealing with events that we hope will never come to pass and, God willing, aren't likely to, if the current mood in Quebec is any indication. Should these events come, we will have to rely on leaders who will think on their feet. The old playbooks simply will not apply.

But that's a question that we won't have to answer for years, if we ever have to answer at all. In the meantime, can we talk about the real issues of this election, like Bill C-51, the Trans Pacific Partnership and climate change? That's what really matters to most Canadians right now, I think. Not Trudeau's hypotheticals.

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