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Home » Content » Stéphane Dion (architect of the Clarity Act): about secessionism, Quebec and Catalonia.
The right to decide if it means unilateral secession, without agreement, is not possible in democracy. Secession breaks the principle of citizenship. We have the right to belong to the whole national territory. Plurality must be promoted. The Government alone cannot determine whether there is a clear majority and a clear question, or whether the negotiation has been done properly and whether separation is now possible: that is up to the Parliament, which has the obligation to maintain a dialogue with all interested parties. Such transparency, and the government's accountability to Parliament, helps to ensure that good faith prevails.

Interviewed by Maite Rico

27 May 2024

Photo: Alberto Di Lolli

Canadian Stéphane Dion is the architect of the Clarity Act, which channelled the Quebec independence crisis by appealing to transparent rules and good faith. He does not intend to give prescriptions, but rather to explain a model from which to draw conclusions.

QUESTION: Canada and Spain have followed contrasting trajectories with respect to independence. Catalonia seems to be where Quebec was 30 years ago, when secessionism came just over a point short of winning the 1995 referendum, the second in 15 years. Today, support for independence has dwindled and even proposing a referendum is a guarantee of electoral defeat. Did Canada handle the crisis well?

ANSWER: Well, secessionism is still a significant movement in Quebec. It has the support of about 40 per cent of the total population, rising to 50 per cent among French-speakers. But it is true that support for a new referendum is low. This is partly because we did a clarification exercise on what the secession process actually entails. The Supreme Court’s pronouncement in 1998, and the Clarity Act of 2000 that gave effect to it, allowed people to better understand the difficulties and uncertainties involved in breaking up a country, and helped to appreciate the advantages of a united Canada.

Q. What is the difference between Quebec secessionism and Catalan secessionism, and are the two situations historically comparable?

R. Each country has its own history. Canada is one of the oldest democracies in the world. Quebec never went through what Catalonia had to go through under Franco and before the Civil War.

P. But the French community suffered deportations and forced assimilation?

R. There was a war between empires and the 19th century was a century of assimilation. English, French, German and Italian were imposed on the dialects. Language unity was important in all these countries for operational, military and productive purposes. For compulsory education. This was the case in Canada. Assimilation of French speakers was perceived as a possibility to offer equal opportunities to those French children living in the British Empire. It didn’t quite work. And the country had to develop other ways of building society, and it drifted into a pluralism of identities, of languages and cultures, embodied in a free and decentralised federation. It has never been easy, but I think it is a model for the world. The French and the British have had to learn to accept each other despite differences in language and religion, which is also a very important element.

P. You have just presented a very enlightening book, Conditions of Secession in Democracy. Reflexiones a partir de la experiencia canadiense (Tirant lo Blanch), written with Alberto López Basaguren and Francisco Javier Romero Caro, experts in Constitutional Law and sovereignty processes. Would the Canadian response to secessionism, promoted by President Jean Chrétien and yourself, be applicable to Spain?

R. I don’t really have a proposal. It is up to the Spanish to decide what they want to do. But we think it would be useful to provide information.

P. You said that secessionism is a universal phenomenon. Are there no universal principles to deal with it?

R. They could be universal if people are willing to accept them, but for that they have to know them. Almost all democratic countries consider themselves indivisible. Canada is an exception: secession is negotiable, but only under certain circumstances within the law and with clarity: clear consultation, clear majority [which does not mean setting thresholds, but establishing a stable consensus] and transparent negotiation. If the people of Quebec unequivocally decide to stop being Canadian, there is an obligation to analyse the problem and negotiate a separation agreement, which does not imply achieving it. It would be very difficult, because it involves dismantling a modern state: from debt sharing to international border demarcation. And if there were finally an agreement, then the Canadian government, together with the other members of the federation, would amend the constitution to remove any reference to the province of Quebec, and invite the world to recognise a new country. I don’t think it will ever happen, because we Quebeckers will always want to remain part of Canada. But this is the script. Can it be replicated? Each country has its own model: the UK has its own, others declare themselves indivisible… I can’t give advice, I can only say: if you want to understand the Canadian model, read this book.

P. It would be very useful: Catalan pro-independence supporters use the Clarity Act for their own purposes, when in fact this law was born to strengthen the unity of Canada and to discourage secession with arguments.

R. Yes, in Spain, both those in favour of secession and those in favour of unity refer to the Canadian case, as Francisco and Alberto point out in the book. I would be delighted if they did so accurately. Here we explain clearly and simply the Canadian conception of acceptable consent to secession in a democracy.

P. You write: “A democratic state should never try to appease the secessionist movement by making concessions”: exactly what the PSOE and the PP have been doing for the last 40 years, in exchange for support to govern.

R. Trying to stop secessionism by giving in to the demands of a growing autonomy is a sign of weakness and has perverse effects. The secessionists’ demands are insatiable because their ultimate goal is separation: they don’t really want more transfers, but a country of their own. And each transfer encourages them to keep demanding until the final break-up, which is seen as the natural culmination. I cannot comment on Spain, but I believe that article 2 of the Constitution condenses the principle of internal self-determination: indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the right to autonomy of the nationalities and regions and solidarity among them. You cannot leave, secession is not allowed, but your autonomy is respected. How it is applied is a discussion among yourselves, but in the Constitution is the way you have to proceed.

P. The “Canadian parameter” stresses respect for the law and the courts at all times. In Spain, the Catalan authorities are not complying with court rulings, for example, on the presence of Spanish in education.

R. Maybe by some individuals, but Canada is a country subject to the rule of law and the weight of court decisions is always very high. If you tell people that you are not going to respect the law, that your authority is above the Constitution, how can you expect people to respect you and your authority? That cannot work. A government must always act within the law.

P. Secession is usually discussed in terms of legality, but you highlight a philosophical concept: the contradictory relationship between secession and democracy. What does this contradiction consist of?

R. I wouldn’t say contradiction so much as a complicated conciliation. Reconciling secession and democracy is difficult, because of the principle of citizenship. Every citizen in a democratic state has the right to belong to the whole national territory. You also have the right to citizenship in an autocratic regime, but it is not full citizenship. To be a real citizen you have to be able to elect your representatives and have your rights, enshrined in the constitution, respected. And that is guaranteed by independent courts. As a Spaniard, or as a Canadian, we have the right to be citizens of our countries, and to travel the world with our passports. That right is very exceptionally withdrawn. In Canada there is not even that possibility in the law. That means that if the secessionists want to make their neighbours foreigners, they will have to change the constitution first. Because all Quebeckers who want to be Canadians have the right to be Canadians. And all Canadians who come to live in Quebec have the right to be in their country. That’s why the right to decide if it means unilateral secession, without agreement, is not possible in a democracy.

P. You underline something important: it is the individual that is essential, not the territory.

R. Yes, I am a liberal.

P. I would like to ask you your opinion on the relationship between secessionism, or rather, nationalism and populism, insofar as nationalism appeals to emotions, to victimhood, to the construction of an external enemy (not to mention the xenophobic component).

R. I think nationalism can be a positive movement: it is impossible not to be a little patriotic. When your football team plays, you are not indifferent. But nationalism becomes dangerous when it is the only way you conceive life in society. When people don’t see you as personal, but only as a member of a collective, of a nation. To avoid that, we have to promote plural identities: if I am Quebecois and Canadian, why should I have to make a choice? Why shouldn’t I be happy to have these two identities, which would help me prepare for life in an increasingly interconnected world?

Q. To what extent are nationalist demands driven by a political class and elites, which eventually permeate society from the top down, partly through control of the media and education?

R. I have friends who believe that everything would be better if they lived in an independent Quebec. I don’t make a judgement of intentions or motives: I simply argue to them why I believe that the ideal I defend is better, and that their project should be carried out respecting borders. But I am a little reluctant to identify them with the negative drifts that may occur, although I do want to underline that when nationalism goes too far it is a dangerous ideology.

P. In Spain, territorial privileges (the Navarrese or Basque fueros) are pre-democratic. Does it make sense in a democracy to maintain structures or legal figures that go against the equality of citizens?

R. I don’t believe in wiping the slate clean. We are a product of history. And it would be a mistake to erase everything that happened before democracy, or before the king lost his head in France. Great countries don’t try to suppress the past, they try to rescue what is useful for the present. It is not because it happened before democracy that something ceases to be of interest. Perhaps it is something we should preserve. Or maybe not: that is something that has to be evaluated in a democratic process.

P. You point out that no unilateral secession process has ever succeeded in a stable democracy. Yet the pro-independence people in Spain are not letting up. Michael Ignatieff says that procès will never end, nor will secessionism in Quebec. Is it an incurable disease?

R. I would call it a political phenomenon linked to the fact that when a human group, united by history, language, culture or religion, has the possibility of becoming the majority in a territory by reducing the borders and making it their own, instead of sharing a larger one with others, there will always be political leaders who will encourage them to do so, because it is the right time, or because later with immigration it will no longer be possible… This will always exist. It will not disappear. The ambition to become a majority instead of a minority. The problem with this mentality is that you will always find a minority with you who will say: let’s do the same thing.

Q. What happened in Quebec with the First Nations groups in the north of the province and the Anglophone minority?

R. Instead of striving to be a majority, perhaps the priority of your political life should be to find a way to work with others to build a stronger country. We don’t need to stop being ourselves. I don’t need to stop being Quebecois to be Canadian. I go back to my idea of plural identities.

P. You talk about the notion of “good faith” as a fundamental basis for dealing with the challenges of secession. I know you have no say in Spanish politics, but I’m afraid that concept is unimaginable in the political world here.

R. Politics in Canada is also difficult, not to be idealised. Debates in Parliament have not always been respectful. Even in conditions of legality and clarity, negotiating secession requires a great deal of political maturity and good faith. Bad behaviour is inherent to human beings. The law cannot guarantee good faith, but it can increase the likelihood that it will prevail. And that I believe is what the Clarity Act has done, because it specifies that the Government alone cannot determine whether there is a clear majority and a clear question, or whether the negotiation has been done properly and whether separation is now possible: that is for Parliament, which has an obligation to maintain a dialogue with all interested parties. Such transparency, and the government’s accountability to Parliament, helps to ensure that good faith prevails.



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