By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA – Canada’s biggest opposition party introduced a bill on Monday that would make it easier for the French-speaking province of Quebec to secede, although the proposal has no chance of becoming law now.
The bill, from the opposition New Democratic Party, would allow Quebec to leave Canada if there were a simple majority vote on a clear question – 50 percent plus one vote, offering clues to NDP policy on the matter if it wins the 2015 election.
Current legislation says a “clear majority” is needed for a province to secede, an undefined number that is described as more than a simple majority.
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said the side with the “largest number of validly expressed votes” should win a referendum, provided the question in the vote was unambiguous. His proposal won’t become law because the Conservatives hold a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
Quebec secessionists came within a hair of winning a referendum to break away from Canada in 1995, gaining 49.4 percent of the vote to 50.6 percent for the pro-Canada side.
That squeaker prompted the federal government to pass the Clarity Act, which requires a clear majority on a clear question. It does not specify what is meant by a clear majority but says it is more than a simple majority.
The NDP, noting the arrangements for a Scottish referendum in 2014 on independence from Britain, would revoke that act.
“There’s no way to look at this otherwise,” Mulcair said. “That’s the rule that’s being followed by the mother of all parliaments in Westminster (the British Parliament).”
The issue has become more pressing with the election last year of a separatist government in Quebec. The separatist Parti Quebecois has only a minority of seats, so it cannot hold a new referendum now. But it could do so if it wins a majority in the next provincial election, expected by mid-2014.
Opinion polls put Quebec support for independence at well short of a majority.
Liberal legislator Stephane Dion, who wrote the Clarity Act, said the NDP was in the absurd position of requiring a two-thirds majority to amend the party’s constitution but a bare majority to break up Canada.
“It’s a decision forever. It’s something that you decide for the next generations,” he told Reuters. “You must be sure that it’s clearly what the people want.”
The NDP’s policy is unlikely to increase its popularity in the rest of Canada, but a majority of its seats are from Quebec and it plainly believes that this will help it retain those seats and fend off the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the next federal election.