Quebec High Court Affirms a 50%-Plus-One Vote Sufficient to Trigger Secession Talks

By: Ryan McMaken

In a court battle that has apparently been working itself out for 17 years, the Quebec High Court this week affirmed that a law establishing a simple majority as key in triggering secession talks with the Canadian government — known as Bill 99 — is sound:

The law was passed in 2000 by then-premier [of Quebec] Lucien Bouchard as a response to the federal government’s Clarity Act, which defines how a province can secede from the federation. It [the Clarity Act] famously called for a “clear” majority in a referendum, without specifying what that meant, prompting endless debates about whether 50 per cent plus one would suffice to trigger sovereignty negotiations. 

In its preamble, Bill 99 describes the Clarity Act as an intrusion into Quebec’s democratic institutions. It declared that no government can “impose constraints on the democratic will of the Quebec people.”

Bill 99 also contains a clause stating that a simple majority is enough to win any referendum held by the Quebec government. 

The Court sought to quell theories that the Quebec government was attempting to pass a law that allowed for unilateral secession. The simple majority necessary for secession talks, the Court concluded, is Constitutional, although, the vote, by itself, is not sufficient to fully execute a withdrawal from the Canadian confederation. Withdrawal would require negotiations with the federal government. 

The significance of the case stems from the fact that the federal government’s Clarity Act is ambiguous as to how much of a majority was necessary to indicate a pro-secession vote from provincial voters. In other words, the Act appeared to allow the federal government to determine, perhaps after the fact, if a pro-secession majority  vote in a province is a large enough majority. 

The new Court decision affirms that a simple majority is sufficient and limits the federal government’s attempts to hedge its bets with language about what constitutes a “clear majority.” 

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