A civil alternative to civil war Secession: Supreme Court tells Ottawa how Quebecers might proceed if referendum passes.

September 19, 1998

IF QUEBEC VOTERS decide in a referendum to secede from Canada, that would not be the final word. But it would oblige the federal government in Ottawa to negotiate the terms of independence with officials in Quebec City. That was the decision handed down recently by Canada's Supreme Court.

In a remarkable 50-page opinion, the Canadian high court unanimously spelled out a reasonable procedure, discussing the meaning of federalism, democracy and other politically sacred concepts along the way. The ruling would turn this often violent question into a sober political process.

Throughout the world and history, secessions have been passionate, undiscussable affairs, bringing out the worst on all sides, decided by might regardless of right. Canadians typically do not do things that way.

The federal government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien took the initiative by asking the Supreme Court to rule in advance on the legality of any referendum. The secession-minded Quebec provincial government, under Lucien Bouchard, disputed the court's jurisdiction and did not argue its own case. The court appointed lawyers to do that.

The court did not go all the way with Mr. Chretien, conceding a path to separatism. And it gave little cheer to Mr. Bouchard by making that path difficult and denying any automatic plebiscite. Still, the Quebec premier has chosen to hail the result rather than lose popular support by denouncing its legality.

The procedures prescribed for Canada could never resolve violent confrontations in nondemocracies, such as Kosovo or East Timor. But they constitute an important precedent for the developed and democratic world, where separatist movements are growing. The reason is the coming of supranational institutions that provide the security that sovereign states alone used to supply.

Many Quebecers think they may gain the advantages of independence without the disadvantages by seeking shelter under North American defense and a Free Trade Area of the Americas, the same as if Quebec remained within Canada.

Likewise, many Scots, Bavarians, Lombards, Bretons and Catalans may be thinking along similar lines with respect to NATO, the European Union and its imminent currency. To such nationalists, the ruling of Canada's high court may be suggestive.

Fortunately, public opinion in Quebec is swinging marginally against the folly of sovereign independence. But Canada's high court has set a reasonable standard for deciding such a question in reasonable nations.

Pub Date: 9/19/98

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