Partition splits Quebec leaders

Quebec cannot be carved up, even if sovereigntists eventually win a referendum, Liberal Leader Jean Charest says.

Quebec cannot be carved up, even if sovereigntists eventually win a referendum, Liberal Leader Jean Charest said on Wednesday when he was pressed to further clarify his position on the province's divisibility.

But the premier refused to commit himself to defending Quebec's territorial integrity should the "yes" side ever win a referendum on sovereignty.

"All of these things are hypothetical questions," he said during a campaign stop outside Quebec City.

"I do not think that Quebec is divisible.And if ever we were to go there, and end up in that situation, I know the question would be asked."

Aboriginal leaders would make a case for partition in the event of a "yes" vote, he added, but voters can avoid the issue altogether by casting a ballot for the Liberals on March 26.

"Here's the choice: We can re-enter that zone, and talk about all these things, and debate these things for the next little while, if Quebecers end up facing a situation where we have a referendum as fast as possible.

"Or we can focus on health care and education and other things."

The issue of partition hounded Charest for most of the day after he made comments at a Tuesday night campaign event suggesting Quebec is not indivisible.

His statements ignited PQ Leader André Boisclair, who continued to accuse Charest on Wednesday of fearmongering to distract voters.

Boisclair reiterated that Quebec would never be divided up regionally even if it achieved sovereignty.

"Only the national assembly can accept a new division of the territory of Quebec.If Mr. Charest is implying that the federal government would modify the Canadian Constitution against the will of Quebec, well let me tell you, we will have a real referendum debate, and we will have chances to win this debate as never we have had."

Boisclair said he expects a smooth transition to nationhood in the event of a "yes" vote on sovereignty.

The PQ has promised to hold a referendum as soon as possible within a first mandate, and its leader has assured Quebecers the province will continue to function after a yes victory.

"We will respect the rights of every Quebecer," including anglophones, aboriginals and all residents who vote against sovereignty," Boisclair said.

The PQ leader said doesn't see a referendum posing a problem in the rest of Canada, given thatthe House of Commons has already recognized Quebecers form a nation.

"Quebec was recognized as a nation.Did the anglophone people lose some rights?Did the First Nations lose some rights?Nothing happened.The same thing will happen after sovereignty."

ADQ Leader Mario Dumont questioned Charest's comments, given his position as the head of the provincial government: "The problem is that the premier of Quebec is not saying things that are at the level of responsibility that is expected from him."

Charest slips on partition

The partition debate surfaced for the first time in the 2007 Quebec election campaign on Tuesday night, when Charest was forced to backtrack on his answer to a question about whether the province would be carved into different territories in the event of separation.

"I don't believe Quebec would be indivisible," Charest said in a comment some interpreted as support for partition. He issued a statement later Tuesday night clarifying his comments, saying he was tongue-tied and meant to say Quebec should not be divided into territories.

Within hours of the comments,Boisclair jumped on his rival's words and demanded clarification. "Jean Charest again has played with matches but this time he burned himself," he said in a late-night news conference in the village of Ste. Thècle, near Trois-Rivières.

Boisclair insisted Charest explain his position regarding Quebec's territory post-separation.

Partition a red herring for constitutional expert

The issue has always been a touchy one in Quebec, with past Liberal premiers staunchly declaring their support for a unified Quebec even if the province separates from the Canadian federation and becomes sovereign.

During the 1995 referendum campaign a number of federalists proposed that if Canada is divisible then so is Quebec. Some predominantly federalist Quebec municipalities even tabled partition declarations in the event the "yes" side won.

But today the question of partition is moot, according to Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer and expert on constitutional affairs.

"A clear [referendum] question, a clear notion of majority, of sovereignty … there are all sorts of issues that can be debated, but I don't think the territory of Quebec is in doubt," he told CBC.

"We have to remember that in every single country there are minorities, and there is no reason to suspect Quebec would mistreat its own," in the event of separation.

Grey said he was surprised the issue has come up again in this campaign.

"It seems to be a little bit of electoral enthusiasm, in order to underline the perils of sovereignty. The premier has every right to campaign for federalism … he is a federalist … but I don't think this particular tack is a good one."