Federal system should determine if question is fair

Preparing for the next referendum

by Sylvain Comeau

The slim No victory has not quieted talk of political uncertainty. Three weeks after the less than decisive October 30th referendum, speakers on opposite sides of the debate speculated on what may come next.

Speaking at the Leacock Building on November 21st, University of British Columbia Political Science Professor (Emeritus) Alan Cairns offered a series of recommendations for the federal government, to better prepare for "the next decision."

Cairns recommends an admittedly risky initiative-a federal-provincial commission of inquiry on the consequences of a Yes vote.

"It would be a 'rest of Canada' version of the Belanger-Campeau Commission. The danger is that it would express a two-nation view of the country, which would possibly encourage the sovereignists."

But Cairns feels that that danger is preferable to the woeful lack of preparedness which the federal government exhibited during the referendum campaign.

"Canada has had trouble simultaneously playing the 'keep Canada together' game and the 'preparing for a Canada without Quebec' game. (But) we need to underline the realities we might face in case of a Yes victory, and work out what a 'plan B' would look like."

Cairns says that a Yes victory in a future Quebec referendum would be a potentially crippling blow to the federal government, depriving Quebec of a centralized negotiating partner.

"The federal government would be in the worst shape-it would possibly even lose legitimacy, and the provinces would be forced to step in and do most of the negotiations. A Yes vote by Quebec, with no one at the other end of the negotiating table, would be tremendously disadvantageous for both sides."

One remedy would be the stability of the constitution.

"The existing constitution should remain in place for two to three years if Quebec decides to leave, so that the existing structure would be there during tough negotiations. It would also help avert manoeuvring for advantage by the provinces."

Growing resentment from the other provinces over the awarding of special powers to Quebec should be assuaged by a corresponding loss of paliamentary power.

"We have to balance jurisdictional inequity by reducing Quebec's power in Parliament. Quebec politicians and intellectuals who have pushed for asymmetrical federalism have not addressed this option, and have taken the attitude that 'we want to have our cake and eat it, too.'"

The rest of Canada also resents having no say in the referendum question, particularly since it is seen as biased.

"They must develop the institutional capacity to determine the fairness of the referendum question. There is a widespread belief outside of Quebec that the question was unfair and misleading.

"There was a very public search by the PQ for a 'winning question.' It was a shameless, transparent, open process, and it was the likely reason for the widespread confusion. Poll results showed that many people thought that Quebec would stay in Canada if the Yes won."

Cairns recommends a federal system for determining the fairness of the referendum question. The Quebec government would still pick the question, but if it was not considered fair, "the federal government could say that it would not take the vote seriously."

The second speaker, noted sovereignist and columnist for Le Devoir Josée Legault, countered that "I can see why the rest of Canada would want a stamp of approval on the referendum question, but that would create more problems than it solved because of a political backlash in Quebec."

Speaking a few days before Chrétien's offer of distinct society status to Quebec, Legault took a dim view of the likelihood of new constitutional talks.

"What are the chances of a new round of constitutional talks? To answer that question, we have to look at the political actors in place. We are faced with a Prime Minister who behaves as if he is the head of a unitary state, and therefore will not stoop to actually consulting or working with the (provincial) premiers. Consensus building, which is at the heart of constitution making, doesn't appear to be anywhere near the federal government's agenda."

Legault predicts that the Reform Party will become the official opposition, and that they and the provincial premiers will futher muddy the constitutional reform waters.

"The Reform Party's rejection of any special status for Quebec...will send a powerful and negative message to those Quebecers who are waiting to see what Canada has to offer. And the provincial premiers' ignorance about both Quebec and Canada, and their fascination with their parochial short-term interests, are a recipe for disaster from the federalist point of view."

The 1982 Constitution Act calls for a constitutional conference in 1997, but Legault suggested that such a conference would only pave the way for another referendum.

"Many federalists have pinned their hopes on the constitutional conference of 1997 (which is called for by the 1982 Constitution Act). What of it? The most likely outcome of such a conference would be failure to build any form of consensus. In that event, or if Chrétien doesn't call the conference, we are sure to face another Quebec referendum in two or three years."

The seminar was organized by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.