NDP leadership hopeful Romeo Saganash is questioning one of his party's signature policies: its insistence that a bare majority referendum vote would be sufficient to trigger negotiations on Quebec secession.
The Cree MP, who represents a vast Northern Quebec riding, is doubtful the 50-per-cent-plus-one threshold is consistent with the Supreme Court's 1998 opinion on the matter.
"I don't know to what extent is that the proper interpretation of the Supreme Court's opinion," Saganash said Thursday in a wide-ranging interview with The Canadian Press.
"The Supreme Court said it has to be a clear response to a clear question."
Mr. Saganash is the first aboriginal to seek the leadership of a major political party in Canada. He was deputy grand chief of the Grand Council of the Cree from 1990-93, a turbulent period during which the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional accords failed, fuelling separatist sentiment among Quebeckers, who came within a hair of voting to secede in a 1995 referendum.
Whatever the necessary threshold to commence negotiations, Mr. Saganash warned that hammering out a divorce agreement would be complex and difficult and that the province wouldn't necessarily leave with its current borders intact.
He said Quebeckers have the right to determine their own future but so, too, do the Cree and Inuit peoples whose traditional territory encompasses the northern two-thirds of Quebec.
"They have the right to decide the fate of their own traditional territory as a people," Mr. Saganash said, adding that international law agrees on that point.
Mr. Saganash's views are at odds with the Sherbrooke Declaration, a document adopted by the NDP in 2006 and credited with helping the party to win over Quebec nationalists in last spring's election. The NDP swept 59 of Quebec's 75 seats.
Among other things, the Sherbrooke Declaration asserts that secession is a "political question, not a legal one." It commits the NDP to recognizing that a bare majority decision of 50 per cent plus one vote would be sufficient to trigger secession negotiations. It recognizes Quebec's right to self-determination but makes no mention of aboriginal peoples.
NDP strategists have insisted the declaration is consistent with the top court's 1998 opinion, which said the federal government and other provinces would be obligated to negotiate the terms of secession only if a clear majority of Quebeckers voted in favour of a clear question to separate. The court left it to "political actors" to determine what constitutes a clear majority, as did the subsequent Clarity Act passed by the Chrétien government to set down the rules for responding to future referendums.
However, the court also 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.
"Canadians have never accepted that ours is a system of simple majority rule," the court said, noting that an "enhanced majority" is required to amend the Constitution.
Mr. Saganash declined to say what he thinks would constitute a clear majority.
"I'll cross that bridge when we get to the river. But for the moment, [50 plus one]is the NDP position. If at one point in time the members of the NDP decide to review that position, I'll obviously participate in that debate. I'm just laying out this is what the Supreme Court said, this is what international law says."
Separatists have long maintained that Quebec is indivisible.
"That's their claim. I don't think it works that way," Mr. Saganash said.
He pointed out that the Cree held their own referendum in 1995. While Quebeckers overall rejected separation by a razor-thin margin, an overwhelming 96 per cent of Cree and Inuit voted to remain part of Canada.
And he noted that the Supreme Court pointed out that disposition of the northern territories would be one of the difficult issues to be resolved in negotiations.
"I think people have to start thinking about that aspect as well. Thus, that issue is going to be very complex and difficult if it does come back. If Quebec decides to try to secede from Canada, they'll have to deal with a lot of issues, including the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples."
Complicating matters further, Mr. Saganash pointed out that the Cree, Inuit and federal and Quebec governments are all signatories to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. Under the Constitution, he said any fundamental change to such a treaty can not be made without the consent of all parties.