Saganash clarifies position on Quebec sovereignty

Quebec NDP MP Romeo Saganash said Friday that he supports his party's Sherbrooke Declaration position after comments he made in an interview cast doubt on his commitment to the Quebec sovereignty policy.
NDP MP and leadership contender Romeo Saganash said Friday he supports his party's position on Quebec secession, clarifying remarks he made in an interview. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

NDP leadership candidate Romeo Saganash was forced to clarify his commitment to a key party policy on Quebec separation Friday after comments he made raised doubts about him toeing the party line.

In an interview Thursday with The Canadian Press, the Quebec MP cast doubt on the NDP's Sherbrooke Declaration position, which states that a bare majority decision of 50 per cent plus one vote would be sufficient to trigger secession negotiations, and whether it is in accordance with a Supreme Court opinion.

"I don't know to what extent is that the proper interpretation of the Supreme Court's opinion," he said in the interview. "The Supreme Court said it has to be a clear response to a clear question."

The NDP has insisted that the Sherbrooke Declaration is consistent with the 1998 court opinion, which said the federal government and other provinces would be obligated to negotiate the terms of secession only if a clear majority of Quebecers voted in favour of a clear question to separate. The court signalled it wouldn't consider 50-plus-one to be sufficient. It noted that democracy "doesn't mean simple majority rule" and that the referendum result "must be free of ambiguity" to trigger negotiations.

Saganash said in the interview that 50-plus-one is the NDP's position and that if members ever decide to change it, he'll "obviously participate in that debate."

"I'm just laying out this is what the Supreme Court said, this is what international law says," he said in the interview. 

On Friday, he issued a statement saying when he made his comments about the Sherbrooke Declaration, he was talking about the issue of secession generally and how it is regarded in international law.

"We should not blur the distinction between international law and politics," said Saganash, the MP for a northern Quebec riding. "My remarks were a simple description of international law and the question of secession is one in which I have considerable expertise. Having testified to Parliament and the Quebec national assembly on this matter on several occasions, my legal opinions are part of the public record and I stand behind them.

"In other jurisdictions, a higher standard than 50 per cent plus one has been applied to the issue of independence before recognition has been granted, while the Supreme Court of Canada indicated that there must be a clear majority on a clear question but did not define that term mathematically," Saganash went on to say.

"Politically, New Democrats have said that they would accept the 50 per cent plus one standard and I support that position unless and until members indicate otherwise," he said.

Quebec sovereignty is a thorny issue for the NDP, particularly now given that the province helped propel the party to official Opposition in the spring election when it grabbed 59 of 75 seats and decimated the Bloc Québécois. It adopted the Sherbrooke Declaration in 2006, which also recognizes Quebec as a nation within Canada, while it was working hard to build support in the province.

Some of Saganash's rival candidates in the leadership race expressed strong support for it Friday and said Saganash is entitled to his own opinion.

"I think Romeo's expressing a point of view. For myself, I support party policy. I was there at the convention when it was passed and we all voted for it," Ottawa MP Paul Dewar told CBC News.

Saganash was not at the 2006 convention, he was not a member of the NDP, or any other party, at the time. He joined the NDP when he met former leader Jack Layton's request to run under the banner in the spring election.

Robert Chisholm, a Nova Scotia MP that is going for the leadership, said he fully supports the Sherbrooke Declaration and that it was arrived at after considerable discussion and careful consideration of the Supreme Court opinion.

"Romeo is an extraordinarily thoughtful and intelligent man and he brings great experience to what he says and I have the utmost respect for him," he said. "And it's these kinds of thoughtful comments that are going to add a lot to the discussion we'll have in the leadership race."

Quebec MP Thomas Mulcair wasn't available for an interview Friday but also weighed in with a statement.

"I support the NDP's current position on the Constitution which is outlined in the Sherbrooke Declaration and was adopted by our members from across Canada at our convention in Quebec City in 2006. In the long-standing federalist tradition of the NDP, we continue to seek solutions that allow us to be a model of mutual respect and acceptance."

Both Dewar and Chisholm said Quebec sovereignty, however, is not something their party, or Quebecers, are focused on these days. Voters' rejection of the Bloc Québécois is proof of that, they said.

"This isn't an issue that people are talking about," Dewar said, adding that people are more concerned about jobs and other issues.

"We also believe that Quebecers continue to indicate, and they certainly did this in May, that they are looking forwards in terms of participating with a federalist party and with Canadians to try and resolve outstanding concerns on issues like jobs, health care, the environment, that those are priorities that they want to see addressed the way all Canadians want them."

With files from Canadian Press