The signature 2000 legislation of the Chrétien government setting out stringent conditions for the breakup of Canada in the event of another referendum on separation in Quebec – or any other province.
In the immediate aftermath of the heart-stoppingly close 1995 referendum, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien vowed that the country would never again be put at risk over a convoluted question (the 1995 question, written by the separatist PQ government, was the rather challenging “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 12, 1995?”) or a razor thin margin.
Chrétien’s reasoning – given powerful validation by his recruitment of Quebec constitutional expert Stéphane Dion as his Intergovernmental Affairs Minister – was that the terms of any divorce can’t be dictated by only one side – in this case the Quebec government. The federal Liberals also reasoned that a simple 50% + one vote equation (which isn’t adequate to change many corporate bylaws, party regulations, or the Canadian Constitution) shouldn’t on its own be enough to break up a country.
Following a protracted public debate and an important reference case to the Supreme Court, Parliament passed the Clarity Act, which sets out the need for both a clear question and a clear majority vote – and claims a role for the federal Parliament in ensuring both.
Much of the country’s media and political elite predicted provocation of the Clarity Act would breathe new life into Quebec Separatists, who had been in retreat since the near-win in 1995. Instead, its passage presaged significant setbacks for Separatists in subsequent federal and provincial elections.
In the fifteen years since the adoption of the Clarity Act, it has become a firm part of the Canadian policy landscape: popular at the national level, and largely accepted in Quebec. It will be interesting to see whether the federal NDP vows to repeal the legislation (an attempt to curry favor with Quebec nationalists) in the federal election in the fall of this year.
Image source: Wikimedia