Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Question of Clarity

In part three of The Champions, Pierre Trudeau's temporary retirement from, and sudden return to, politics quickly gives way to discussion regarding the question that would be asked during the 1980 referendum.

In the end, the question that emerged was not one explicitly about separation, but rather one that asked for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty accompanied by political and economic "association" with the rest of Canada. What emerged was not a notion of sovereignty, but rather the nebulous term of "sovereignty association".

Moreoever, the 1980 referendum promised a second one to ratify whatever agreement Rene Levesque's government could reach with the rest of Canada.

The necessity of such a referendum at all was questioned by many, and with good reason. Quebec's government already had the authority to negotiate nearly anything that it liked with the federal goernment, and with Canada's other provinces.

Pierre Trudeau, who had previously declared Quebec separatism to be dead, didn't intervene until late into the referendum campaign, when it became apparent that Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan proved incapable of leading the fight.

Ryan's rejection of political polling was particularly troubling, and led to future Prime Minister Jean Chretien -- who had experience in both federal and provincial politics -- was dispatched to attempt to save the day.

But the absense of Trudeau and his government from the matter of the referendum question was as much a tactical error as entrusting the campaign to Ryan, or Chretien's decision to stay out of the 1995 referendum campaign until late in the contest.

Allowing the referendum question to be decided largely without input from the federal government produced two very problematic questions, one that left many Quebeckers unsure of what they were voting on, and many more deceived.

Eventually, Stephane Dion, under Chretien's leadership, produced the Clarity Act in 1999 -- four years after an ambigious question nearly dismembered Canada during the 1995 referendum, and nearly twenty years after the government should have been involved in the first place.

Moreoever, even in passing the Clarity Act, the Liberals were too late even to that topic. The central ideas of the Clarity Act were effectively lifted out of a previous bill, defeated by the Liberals, introduced by then-Reform Party MP and now Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

While the Liberal Party has long awarded themselves credit for the defeat of the two referendums, they have long evaded the blame for how their complacency on the matter nearly destroyed Canada.

The clarity question could have decided the question of Quebec separatism long before it grew into a decisive theat to Canada.

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