Madam Speaker, it is with considerable regret that I rise today to speak on a bill that contemplates the potential breakup of Canada.
Having recently participated in the NDP Social Democratic Forum on the Future of Canada, a constructive and thoughtful process of consultation and reflection on the future of our federation, I would much prefer, as I am sure many members of the House would prefer, to be making the case for the many positive proposals that the forum put forward not simply to strengthen national unity but more significantly to improve our democracy and the way that Canada works for all its citizens.
My regret also stems from my firm belief that Canada could have done better than this, that the situation we are now in was avoidable. While I believe that the government is now doing in part what needs to be done, I begin by saying that I hold the Liberals, who are now the government, responsible in no small way for where we are now.
The current Prime Minister has had a long career, all of it characterized by a lack of sensitivity to the appropriate constitutional aspirations of the Quebec people within Canada. This was most clearly and most tragically apparent in the nature of his opposition to the Meech Lake accord, the failure of which led to the formation of the Bloc Quebecois and the resurgence of separatism in Quebec.
It also led, in the context of the subsequent and unsuccessful Charlottetown accord, to the rise of the then nascent Reform Party and therefore a political situation in which a meaningful plan A is now a faint hope or at least a plan A which addresses the desire of many Quebecers for some kind of constitutional recognition of the special, distinct or unique nature of Quebecers as a people or a society within Canada.
Devolution of power is one thing and this has happened extensively in recent years in training, housing, immigration and other areas. However, this administrative approach to addressing Quebec-Canada relations not only has no effect on separatists, not surprisingly, it does not address the most important needs of Quebec federalists either, all the while weakening the presence and the role of the federal government in the rest of Canada. Likewise, the resolutions passed by the House after the 1995 referendum having to do with distinct society and the Quebec veto came too late and too much like deathbed repentance after the near death experience of the 1995 referendum, and they still do not constitute constitutional change.
And so Quebecers may be asked to choose between staying in a Canada that is now unwilling or unable to do certain important things, or becoming a separate country. If they are asked this question they will be asked to make the choice by a provincial government that is committed to Quebec becoming a separate country in any event. I say this because I take it as self-evident that if Quebec federalists were in power in Quebec City, if Jean Charest was in power in Quebec City, Quebecers would not be having such a question put to them.
Not all Quebecers are committed to the view that if Canada does not meet each and every desire they have for constitutional change their response should be to form a separate country. There are many Quebecers who may be unhappy with the way things have worked out in recent years but who are still committed to working out those problems within the context of a united Canada.
It is to those Quebecers that in many respects I feel this bill is directed, so they do not become, along with other Quebecers, the object of a political process which sets in motion a process toward secession without there being such things as a clear majority and a clear question.
We have to deal with the situation we have before us, with the real live historical possibility of another referendum. We do not know exactly when it will come. It appears that Mr. Bouchard does not know exactly when it will come. He appears more uncertain as the days and weeks go by.
How we got here is not the issue any more. The issue now before us is twofold. The first issue is whether Quebecers, in any subsequent referendum that a separatist Quebec government sees as an instrument of its separation strategy, will be presented with a clear question so they know exactly what they are choosing. The second issue before us is whether Quebecers, if they choose to leave Canada in response to a clear question, should do so by some standard of “clear majority”. These two issues correspond to the two conditions laid down by the Supreme Court of Canada as the conditions that would have to be met if the rest of Canada is to be obliged to negotiate secession after any referendum.
As to referendums on non-secessionist questions, these would continue to be possible and would continue to have whatever effect they might have, depending on the level of support that such non-secessionist proposals might have in Quebec and in the rest of Canada. There is no need to incorporate the possibility of such referendums into this bill, as has been suggested by some. The possibility of such referendums is not endangered by the clarity bill.
Referendums on various forms of partnerships and associations would still be possible, but they would not trigger negotiations that had anything to do with, or could lead to, secession. That is the difference between the kind of referendum and referendum question that this bill addresses and other referendums and referendum questions that may be possible.
Those other kinds of referendum questions, which do not have to do with secession, could trigger whatever kinds of negotiations that might be politically possible in any given historical context. Such non-secessionist referendum proposals would presumably come as an aid to the normal process of constitutional amendment, whereby a province like Quebec, or for that matter any other province, could demonstrate the unity of its population or the strength of its posital change by having a referendum.
The clarity bill does not damage nor does it replace the ordinary process of constitutional change and amendment. The clarity bill addresses what would need to happen for there to be extraordinary constitutional negotiations and extraordinary constitutional amendments leading to the secession of Quebec or some other province.
Canadians listening to this debate may notice that I have assumed the right of Quebecers to freely and democratically determine their own future. Since the founding of the New Democratic Party in 1961, New Democrats have affirmed Quebec's right to self-determination. The NDP is proud to have been the first federal party to recognize that right.
Recently at our August 1999 convention we adopted a paper which advocated recognizing Quebecers as a people, not in the ethnic and therefore inappropriate nationalistic sense of being a people, but rather as a way of recognizing that Quebecers form one of the two linguistic and cultural realities that most Canadians live and move and have their social being within. This non-ethic understanding of a people which the NDP proposes to recognize corresponds with what some observers have called civic nationalism.
In itself, though, Quebec's right to self-determination, or the self-determination of the Quebec people, is just an abstraction. It is just a principle if it is not fleshed out in the context of other democratic values, such as the rule of law, individual and aboriginal rights, constitutionalism and federalism. As with any other individual or collective right, Quebec's right to self-determination must be given concrete expression in a clear, fair and democratic process that is consistent with all of the competing but equally legitimate democratic principles.
It is precisely this challenge that was taken up in the 1998 supreme court reference on Quebec's right to secede from Canada. In that opinion the supreme court offered some key advice, particularly with respect to the rights and obligations of the federal parliament in any secession bid.
In its opinion the supreme court made two key points. First, it affirmed the democratic legitimacy of Quebec's right to self-determination even though the Canadian constitution contains no explicit process for the secession of a province. The court even recognized that a democratic referendum would be a legitimate mechanism through which Quebecers could express their desire to secede. On this question the court said:
A clear majority vote in Quebec on a clear question in favour of secession would confer democratic legitimacy on the secession initiative which all of the other participants in Confederation would have to recognize.
This was a legitimate victory for my sovereignist colleagues in the House who for too long have been taunted by some who have threatened to not negotiate in any event.
However, the court in its opinion also made a second equally important point: that Quebec's right to self-determination must be exercised within the Canadian constitutional framework. The court said:
Quebec could not, despite a clear referendum result, purport to invoke a right of self-determination to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties to the federation. The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole.
This was a legitimate victory for those who believed that no referendum by itself would enable Quebec to act unilaterally and without regard for the views of the rest of Canada.
We see in the supreme court opinion that Quebec's right to self-determination must be respected by its partners in confederation, but that that right must be exercised with respect for the other democratic values that have guided us for more than 130 years. In striking a balance between these two key principles the supreme court specified a clear role for the federal parliament in any secession bid.
As a key actor in the constitutional amendment procedure, parliament has an obligation to negotiate in good faith should it be confronted with a clear will to secede, and it has an obligation to represent the rights and interests of all Canadians in any such negotiating process.
The bill before us today sets out an orderly process by which parliament would discharge these responsibilities.
We in the NDP are supporting this bill in principle at second reading because we recognize the role that parliament must play in setting the terms under which the rest of Canada represented in parliament would negotiate secession.
As one of the negotiating parties to any possible secession, parliament has a right to say what it will regard as sufficient to trigger its own willingness to negotiate secession. This right should not be put into question any more than the right of the national assembly in Quebec to conduct a referendum and to ask any questions it wants should be put into question. These two rights coexist. They are not in conflict with each other.
The only thing that should be debated here is whether parliament, in exercising that right, has set the bar too high on the issues of clarity and majority or whether the clarity bill acts in some other way that can be judged as unfair or prejudicial to the freedom of the Quebec people or the rights of minorities in Quebec such as the aboriginal community. This is what the committee process should be about.
At the end of the day we believe it will be in everyone's interests, both in Quebec and in the rest of Canada, to have a clear and transparent framework for defining a secession bid and for dealing with a secession bid should we unfortunately be presented with one.
It is particularly important to establish in advance the conditions under which secession negotiations would be triggered. The supreme court identified two key conditions for a referendum to trigger secession negotiations: a clear question and a clear majority.
New Democrats agree that a clear question is a necessary condition before any secession negotiations begin because with an ambiguous question it would be impossible to determine whether a referendum result truly reflected a desire to secede. Surely this is a democratic principle and cannot be construed as an attack on democratic principles that an unambiguous question should be required in order to create the conditions for something as serious as separation.
It should be emphasized again that the bill's requirement for a clear question to trigger secession talks would not in any way prevent Quebec from holding a referendum on any kind of question it desires. It simply means that only referendums that are clearly about secession could impose an obligation on the federal parliament to enter secession negotiations. That seems only fair and reasonable to me.
However, we do have some concerns about the current drafting of the bill's provisions with respect to a clear majority. That is why we have offered our support in principle for the bill at second reading, but will no doubt be proposing amendments to address our concerns when the bill goes to committee for more detailed study and consultation.
In addition to the bill's definition of a clear majority, we also have concerns about the role and rights of aboriginal peoples and the excessive role given to the unelected Senate.
On the notion of clear majority, the bill does not specify a particular threshold. Instead, it follows the supreme court suggestion that after a referendum result parliament must make a qualitative judgment, taking into account the size of the majority, the turnout and any other factors relevant to determining the true meaning of the result.
While we can appreciate the court's desire to avoid oversimplifying the issue, the process proposed in the bill could permit an irresponsible parliament to ignore a clear majority in favour of secession by arbitrarily establishing an unreasonably high threshold after the votes are counted, the so-called moving goal posts after the game. We are concerned about that. We look forward to hearing from Canadians about how we might improve the bill to avoid or minimize this potential problem.
New Democrats are also concerned that the rights of aboriginal peoples are not adequately protected in the bill. Existing constitutional protection for aboriginal rights would clearly be threatened by the secession of a province.
The bill specifies that the question of aboriginal rights would need to be addressed—whatever that means—but specifies no basic level of protection for these rights that would need to be achieved before parliament agrees to the secession of a province.
The bill also identifies various actors whose views parliament must take into consideration in its deliberations on a secession bid, but aboriginal peoples are not among those specifically identified.
Recent practice and natural justice suggest that aboriginal peoples should be involved. New Democrats will be actively searching for ways to ensure both that aboriginal peoples are meaningfully involved and that stronger protection is provided for their rights.
The bill's failure to involve aboriginal peoples is particularly problematic, some might even say offensive, when one considers the prominent role it gives to the Senate, or to the other place as we are required to say in this place. The bill calls on parliament to take into consideration the views of the Senate in determining whether or not there is a clear question and a clear majority.
New Democrats have long argued that an unelected, unaccountable Senate has no place in a modern democracy and so it seems to us that there is simply no justification for giving such an undemocratic institution an important role in a process concerning a serious issue like secession. After all, the primary objective of the bill must be to establish a framework that is in both fact and perception fair and democratic. Giving a prominent role to the Senate clearly does not help in this regard. One can only wonder what the Liberals were thinking when they came up with this.
While I raise these concerns about the current drafting of the bill, I want to emphasize that New Democrats will go into the committee stage with open minds. We invite Canadians to share their suggestions for improving the bill in the three areas I have identified and indeed in any other areas they may want to raise and bring to the attention of the committee. We also call on the Liberals to join us in a sincere effort to improve the bill so that Canadians can have the most fair and democratic framework possible for dealing with the gravely serious issue of secession.
Like many Canadians, I have been concerned that the Liberal Party may be using the bill to serve narrow partisan interests. It would not be the first time in Canadian history that votes have been sought by virtue of a so-called tough on Quebec strategy. The Liberal Party since 1968 has profited greatly from such a strategy on occasion. The Reform Party is heir to the same tradition, a tradition that the united alternative, or CCRAP, or CRCAP, or whatever, seems to want to distance itself from.
I say with great pride that the NDP has never been attracted to any such strategy. We do what we do now because we believe it to be necessary. We take no joy in it. We loathe the destructive family feud that goes on in this House between the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs and my colleagues in the Bloc Quebecois. From time to time we are called to take a stand on some matter of principle. From time to time in doing so we have voted with the Bloc on such matters as they pertain to Quebec and have been attacked in some of our home constituencies for catering to separatists and siding with separatists. We have done it when we thought the Bloc was right. On this issue we find the Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs to be in the right despite the often arrogant and unhelpful way he goes about his business.
Finally, I want to reiterate the comments of my leader. She closed her speech on this bill by urging the government and parliament not to allow work on this bill to distract them from the critically important task of building a better Canada, one that meets the hopes, dreams, needs and aspirations of our citizens so that the legislation we are debating today will never be required.