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April 9, 1999

Dear Mr. Premier,

You have sought to turn the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Newfoundland's entering Canada into an opportunity to reopen the debate on the clear majority required by the Supreme Court to initiate the negotiation of a secession. The attempt to link these two issues is unfortunate for our fellow citizens from Newfoundland, who deserved to be celebrated for themselves, and regrettable as well for us, Quebecers, the great majority of whom wish to hear nothing more of your plans for a third referendum.

Your point of view is well summed up in the following statement, which you made on March 30 outside the National Assembly:


"In 1949 [sic], by that historic decision that would be binding upon future generations, Newfoundlanders adopted the democratic rule of fifty per cent plus one. And it was by a vote of fifty-two per cent, with a majority of 7,000 ballots, that the dual decision was made to break with Great Britain and join Canada [...]. It would be a historical injustice if, in an upcoming referendum, Quebecers were not treated with the same democratic respect as their friends and neighbours in Newfoundland."

It is precisely because Quebecers are entitled to the same democratic respect as Newfoundlanders that the negotiation of their loss of Canada should never be undertaken unless, as stated by the Supreme Court, a clear majority has made that choice by responding positively to a clear question on secession. In fact, the comparison with Newfoundland argues against a secession attempted on a 50% plus one basis for four fundamental reasons:

1. The ties to break were much less steadfast

Newfoundland was neither a province nor a region of the United Kingdom. An independent state at the time, Newfoundland had endured enormous economic hardship during the Great Depression, with the result that it became politically and financially dependent on the United Kingdom in 1934, a status that was intended to be provisional from the outset. After the war, pressure to put an end to this provisional status grew, and London encouraged this option.

You are asking Quebecers to split a real country, not to put an end to a provisional arrangement. The ties that would have to be "broken", as you put it, would be infinitely more solid and complex than those linking Newfoundland to the United Kingdom in 1948. Their rupture would require that many precautions be taken so as to ensure justice for all. A host of problems would arise, including, possibly, the issue of borders.

As the Supreme Court reminds us,

"After 131 years of Confederation, there exists, inevitably, a high level of integration in economic, political and social institutions across Canada. [...] Of course, secession would give rise to many issues of great complexity and difficulty. [...] Nobody seriously suggests that our national existence, seamless in so many aspects, could be effortlessly separated along what are now the provincial boundaries of Quebec."

2. The rupture was supported by a clear majority

One cannot confuse the 52% of Newfoundlanders who supported confederation with Canada with the much larger majority who were in favour of rupturing the links of provisional dependency they had with the United Kingdom. A first referendum held on June 3, 1948, offered Newfoundlanders three options: 1) a five-year extension of this status of dependency, [Commission of Government] 2) independence, without the financial support of London [Responsible Government] or 3) entry into the Canadian federation [Confederation with Canada]. Only 14% of voters supported the extension of the status of dependency. In other words, 86% of voters supported rupturing the link with the United Kingdom. The Government of the United Kingdom, responsible for organizing these public consultations, expected such a clear majority and expected that the real debate would be between the other two options in a subsequent referendum.

In fact, it is best not to hold a referendum on this type of rupture unless it is merely to confirm officially the existence of an observable consensus in its favour. This is what has occurred since 1945 in the 13 cases of accession to independence, outside the colonial context, in which referenda were held: the majority obtained was on average 92%, with the lowest having been 72%.

3. The wrenching choice was made between two radical changes and not between continuity and a radical change

When a choice is made between the solution of continuity and a serious, quasi-irreversible change that would profoundly affect the lives of citizens and future generations, it is appropriate to require the proponents of that change to obtain the support of a clear majority. In the case of Newfoundland, the second referendum, held on July 22, 1948, forced voters to choose between two radical changes: independence without British financial support or confederation with Canada. There was no solution of continuity available. The Canadian government could have refused to negotiate Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation by claiming that 52% support for Canada was too lukewarm. But in doing so, Canada would have forced Newfoundland to fall back on the less popular option of radical change: independence without external assistance.

Quebecers have a solution of continuity available to them: their country, Canada. You are proposing a radical change: Quebec’s secession from Canada. Quebecers have the right not to lose Canada unless they have clearly indicated their desire to do so. This right has been confirmed for them by the Supreme Court.

4. Joining is not the same as leaving

On the basis of mutual agreement, after months of negotiations, Newfoundland entered Canada; it did not break it up. As the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Newfoundland aptly responded to you, building a country is not the same as breaking up a country.

And contrary to what you stated on March 31, nothing in the opinion of the Supreme Court makes it possible to confuse the rules regarding the majority necessary for entering and those for leaving a country.

It is customary in a democracy to require a higher majority for separating from a union than for entering it, since the risks of injustice are higher when one is seeking to break mutual ties, allegiances and obligations forged over time. This principle, which applies for an association in private law, is all the more relevant where a country is involved. Indeed, a number of highly democratic countries, such as France and the United States, exclude any secession, regardless of the majority.

It is therefore the position of the Government of Canada that our governments would be acting irresponsibly if they attempted to negotiate secession without the assurance that this is what Quebecers clearly want. This is what emerges from the opinion of the Court, with its emphasis on clarity, provided that one does not read it selectively.

A majority would be required that is sufficiently clear that it does not dwindle away during the difficult negotiation period and that it could be legitimately binding on future generations. You yourself, Mr. Premier, acknowledged on August 31, 1998, that it would be "desirable" for the Yes side to obtain more than a simple majority. Why then consider beginning a negotiation process as difficult as that for secession with a majority that would not be "desirable"?

Even from your own point of view, that of an advocate of independence, you should acknowledge that the attempt at secession would almost surely fail without that clear support, not for lack of mutual good faith, but because the inevitable difficulties associated with your project would create growing reluctance within Quebec itself. And after imposing on Quebecers the ordeal of this failed negotiation, they would have no desire to relive the experience a second time.

I have two suggestions for you. The first, which is by far the solution preferred by the great majority of Quebecers, is to put away your plans for a third referendum, which divides and weakens Quebec, and instead devote all your energies to working with the other provinces and the Government of Canada to ensure prosperity and social progress for all our fellow citizens and all our children.

The second, on the assumption that you would want to move ahead with your plans for a third referendum, is to give serious thought to how the decision by the Supreme Court can be fully respected, including, notably, its requirements for clarity with respect to the majority and the question on secession.

Yours truly,

Original signed by

Stéphane Dion