Log Cabin Chronicles

Peter Scowen

The referendum myth


Not so long ago I went off like a firecracker about the Supreme Court's refusal to define "clear" question and "clear" majority. Seven days later, the irk is even more irksome, but the focus is broader.

Why, I now ask myself, did the nine judges endorse without a moment's hesitation the idea of using referenda to gain independence? Since the justices took it upon themselves to go beyond the original three questions posed by the federal government, why didn't they examine the Quebec question outside the narrow and tired confines of referendum-negotiation-separation?

Thanks to the court, the notion that Quebec's departure from Canada will be triggered by another referendum is more firmly entrenched in the Canadian psyche than ever. The judges saw to this by stating that Canada must negotiate with Quebec if the province's voters demonstrate a "clear" will to separate in another referendum. They never for a second questioned the dogma of the referendum approach a stunning lack of imagination from so august a group.

This was their chance to blow fresh air through a stale debate. Most Quebecers can't conceive of any other independence mechanism than referenda. How else would you go about it, they'd ask? Referenda are the chosen way in Quebec, thanks mostly to René Lévesque. He drew the map with the original, 1980 vote, stating without equivocation that the referendum was the ultimate expression of Quebecers' democratic will. When the yes side lost, he reinforced the referendum's importance by telling his teary-eyed followers on the night of their defeat, "If I've understand correctly, you're telling me à la prochaine."

From that moment on, referenda were a sacred cow in Quebec an untouchable and apparently natural method of achieving self-determination. From that moment on, there had to be another referendum on separation in Quebec, if not two, or three, or more.

In an extension of the same logic, a positive result in a referendum has since become as sacred as the right to hold the vote itself. Most of the separatists who marched at Lévesque's side in 1980 came away believing that a victory would be ultimate and incontrovertible the will of God, almost. The referendum went from being a demonstration of Quebecers' desire for independence to being the actual creator of that independence.

Thus, to suggest today that referenda aren't the best route to independence is to be branded undemocratic, anti-Quebec, racist, whatever. So of course the Supreme Court didn't raise the question; too bad, because a revision of the referendum mythology would benefit separatists as much as anyone else.

For one thing, the judges could have pointed out that referenda are meant to confirm consensus, not create it. Quebec has it backwards. Under the current formula, the population is supposed to vote in favour of independence, and then find out at some later date just exactly what that means. This works very well for the Parti Québécois, which has the monopoly on the separation movement. The PQ can maintain the province's interest in separation without actually going into any depth about it, or discussing the issue at all, really.

All Lucien Bouchard has to do is hold out the possibility of another referendum, and the whole world snaps to attention. To put it cynically, referenda are the chief marketing tool of the PQ's version of independence. It is the Michael Jordan of Quebec's consumer politics, and now it has the endorsement of the Supreme Court.

But the judges could have suggested that Quebec use its next referendum in another way: that is, to confirm Quebecers' desire to leave Canada and form their own country, once the terms and mechanisms of independence had been settled. We've had no two-way debate with the rest of Canada about the costs and benefits of independence in Quebec: there is no informed consensus on the question. All we've ever had is argument and counter-argument at the superficial level of politics and punditry. Spin, in other words.

Lévesque more or less saw the necessity of informed consensus back in 1980. While he is responsible for the transformation of referenda into something akin to religious ceremony, he also created the local trend whereby referenda questions are termed as a request to negotiate sovereignty with the rest of Canada. Most people see this as a dodge, of course, and it was definitely just that in the 1995 vote.

But Lévesque, the country's last decent democrat, seemed to understand that referenda are not a magic pill. He knew they couldn't create an instantly independent Quebec born into peace and prosperity. Only negotiation with the rest of Canada could do that.

I like to imagine that if Lévesque were alive today he'd support a new separatist party that ran on a platform of making a specific offer to Canada about who would get what, at what cost, and so on. If the party were elected to government, its leader could make the offer formally to Canada. Canada would then be obliged (in the court's famous opinion) to negotiate. Terms could be reached, and then and only then the provincial government could hold a referendum asking Quebecers whether they wanted to go their own way under the conditions laid out on paper.

But that's not going to happen. In the next referendum, Quebecers will vote for or against an undefined future. If they vote yes, they will then find out what the future holds but only then. And they won't for one second think there is anything strange about this, now that the Supreme Court has put its weight behind the referendum myth. Vote and you shall be free, the judges told Quebecers. It was an error of tragic proportions.

Peter Scowen is a freelance writer in Montreal. His Hour Magazine columns are republished with permission.

Home | Stories | Columns

© 1998 Peter Scowen/Log Cabin Chronicles/9.98