Madam Speaker, I am truly pleased to stand in the House today as a member of the legislative committee that worked on the clarity bill. In a word I would describe the bill as brilliant.
The separation of Quebec would have profound effects on the whole of Canada and its citizens, including Quebecers wishing to remain in Quebec.
While I agree with this sentiment these are not my words. These are the words of Claude Castonguay, a former Quebec cabinet minister from the Bourassa government.
The clarity bill is a reasonable bill. It is made up of three clauses. It is brief and it is straightforward unlike the 411 motions brought forward by the Bloc Quebecois with which the House will deal later today.
In Motions Nos. 13 to 68 in Group No. 2 there are frivolous changes to the 30 day suggestion put out in the clarity bill. They range from 50 days to 250 days. They are not constructive and they do not improve this piece of legislation.
The message we all took from the 1995 referendum was that we came dangerously close to losing our country on a vague question and a dubious vote. In 1995 the referendum question asked by the Quebec government was confusing. It read:
Do you agree that Quebec 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 Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12th?
Quebecers who voted on this question felt they understood, but when they were polled there was a great disparity as to what they thought they were voting on. While individuals were clear within their minds it was not a shared vision that they were voting on.
The results of the referendum saw the yes side receive 49.6% of the vote and the no side receive 50.4%. Support fluctuated by 15 percentage points depending on whether sovereignty would be accompanied by economic partnership with the rest of Canada. Voter turnout for the referendum was high because Quebecers realized the stakes were high. Individuals, while convinced their interpretations were clear, did not share the common view.
The clarity bill states that within 30 days of a provincial government officially releasing a referendum question on secession, the House of Commons would express its opinion by resolution as to whether or not the question is clear. If the House found that the vote on the question could not result in a clear expression of will by the population of that province on whether or not it would cease to be part of Canada, it would no longer deal with the question.
In reaching its assessment the House would take into account the views of other political actors, political parties in the legislative assembly of the province whose government was proposing secession, other provincial or territorial governments and other legislatures.
Soliciting a direct expression of will of the population of a province as to whether the province would cease to be part of Canada is a huge question. This has results that could not go back four years and be reversed. The Government of Canada would enter into negotiations only if the House had concluded that there had been a clear expression of will by a clear majority of the population of that province.
In reaching the assessment the House would take into account matters it considered relevant. These kinds of issues need to be dealt with in context. The clarity bill spells out the qualitative aspect of both the question and the majority.
Secession would require an amendment to our constitution. It would involve at least the governments of all the provinces as well as the Government of Canada. We would have to discuss such things as division of assets and liabilities, perhaps border changes from the province and of course the rights, interests and territorial claims of aboriginal peoples as well as the protection of the rights of minorities.
Another issue that came up very many times when we were discussing this bill—and we heard from many expert witnesses during this process—was whether or not 50% plus one was an indication of a clear majority, a majority that would be irreversible. One does not break up a country with 50% plus one.
Quebecers have already said no twice to secession but the question keeps coming up. How many times is enough? Is it three out of five? Is it five out of seven? Is it seven out of twelve? How many times will we deal with this issue?
Members opposite would have us believe that 50% plus one is a telling majority, and yet they have received that from the no side and they continue to ask the question. No means no now but yes means maybe later. Yes is forever. Only a yes vote will give rise to irreversible change that will bind future generations of the country.
The supreme court requires political actors to assess the clarity of any future majority in favour of secession. It uses the expression clear majority 13 times in its ruling to underline how much it feels this is an issue to be dealt with.
The hon. member for Bonaventure—Gaspé—Îles-de-la-Madeleine—Pabok in Motion No. 2 states that the acceptable majority in the 1995 referendum was 50% plus one and therefore this is the threshold that should be used in any future referendum.
Quebec's own referendum laws set no threshold for an acceptable majority precisely because referendums in Canada are consultative. This was recognized by the PQ government in its white paper leading to its referendum law which stated:
The fact that referenda are consultative makes it unnecessary to include provisions about a required majority or a level of voter participation.
The supreme court's opinion made clear that there was no precise numerical threshold which would trigger negotiations but that:
It will be for political actors to determine what constitutes a clear majority on a clear question...in the circumstances under which a future referendum vote may be taken.
When we ask Quebecers what they think, on October 30, 1999, the Government of Canada released a poll that was conducted of 4,992 Quebecers. It is one of the most important and precise polls, with a margin of 1.6% error, ever conducted on the question of national unity. The will of Quebecers was never again to undergo a confused referendum process such as those that we saw in 1980 and 1995. Quebecers want the process for any future referendums to be based on the principle of clarity. Most say it is reasonable to require a clear referendum question; 93% versus 4% agreed with this statement and on a clear majority 72% agreed versus 24% before Quebec can become independent.
The majority of Quebecers say that the 1995 referendum question was not clear at a support level of 61% versus 36%. Quebecers are opposed to a unilateral declaration of independence if the yes side won in a referendum. The majority says it is reasonable that the Government of Quebec would have to reach an agreement with the rest of Canada before declaring independence.
Quebecers say there is also majority support for the supreme court's decision that the Government of Quebec does not have the right to unilaterally declare independence. That was supported 55% versus 36%.
During our two week consultation process when we again heard from many expert witnesses, many former colleagues at different levels of government came to talk to us. Ed Broadbent commented, when appearing before the legislative committee on Bill C-20, as follows:
Of the 13 new countries to emerge following referenda in the post-World War II, post-colonial era, nine had positive results over 95%; two over 90%; and the remaining two in excess of 75%.
He went on to say:
In my view, Premier Bouchard would be a wise man if he waited until he could expect comparable results. He would be even wiser to abandon his secessionist goal and acknowledge the evident truth that the majority of Quebecers have made great gains in recent decades. By means of the rights and freedoms enjoyed by all Canadians, they have created a wonderful and, dare I say it, distinct society. They are proud Quebecers and proud Canadians.
The clarity bill defines the real stakes in a referendum. The Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, when he appeared before the legislative committee, said:
On August 20, 1998, the supreme court gave a legal confirmation to that moral obligation. It is eminently desirable that we all respect that opinion, whether we are in favour of Canadian unity or Quebec independence.
Secession is a black hole and I am convinced that the clarity bill is the best guide in making our way through.