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Supreme Court answers Quebec secession questions

The Story

The Supreme Court's constitutional opinion on Quebec separation is in, and both sides claim victory. Federalists highlight the court's assertion that Quebec cannot unilaterally declare independence. Sovereigntists say the court merely confirmed what they've always maintained - that a winning referendum would force Canada to negotiate secession. But at the core of the matter, the court says that only a clear majority on a clear question would provide grounds for a negotiated separation. In minutes, politicians of every stripe pounce on what "clear" means.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Aug. 20, 1998
Guest(s): Stéphane Dion, Joseph Magnet, Anne McLelland
Anchor: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Jason Moscovitz
Duration: 3:35

Did You know?

• After a close-call in the 1995 Quebec referendum, the federal government referred three questions to the Supreme Court. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien sought advice on the legality of separation, and Quebec's assertion that a winning referendum would give it the right to declare independence. In essence, the questions asked if either the Constitution of Canada or international law provided the legal authority for Quebec to unilaterally secede from Canada, and if there was a conflict between domestic and international law on the matter, which took precedence.


• The questions were delivered to the court on Sept. 30, 1996. Written submissions were filed later in 1996 and 1997, with oral argument during the week of Feb. 16, 1998 capping off the complex procedure. The Quebec government, led by Parti Québécois Premier Lucien Bouchard, refused to participate in the hearings. To argue the sovereigntist side, the court appointed an amicus curiae or "friend of the court" to present arguments that would not otherwise be heard.


• The court granted intervener status to an unprecedented 15 applicants, including several aboriginal peoples, the Attorneys General of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the justice ministers of both territories, the Minority Advocacy Rights Council and a number other interested parties. Intervener status entitled each party to make written and oral submissions before the court.


• In their 78-page ruling, all nine justices agreed that unilateral secession was not sanctioned by domestic or international law, thus making the third question moot.


• Many expected the decision would set the tone for the Quebec election held just three months later, in November 1998. While the question of another referendum played its usual central role in the race, and voters re-elected the Parti Québécois led by Premier Lucien Bouchard, no referendum was held during the PQ's tenure or at any time since.



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