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If Quebec can separate, can Montreal be partitioned? No so fast, experts say


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With the soaring Parti Québécois vowing to hold a referendum to take Quebec out of Canada, some anglophones want to split Montreal (or part of it) from Quebec. But constitutional lawyers say that's easier said than done.

The flags of Quebec and Canada are shown on flagpoles. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

It’s a déjà-vu moment. 

The soaring Parti Québécois vows to hold a referendum to take Quebec out of Canada, leading some anglophones to talk up partition — splitting federalist Montreal (or part of it) from Quebec. 

If Quebec can leave Canada, Montreal can leave Quebec, according to partition proponents. 

Not so fast, three constitutional experts say.

What’s behind the partition talk?

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Some dismiss partition as a fringe idea promoted by a segment of the anglophone population.

But the prospect of partition has been raised by prominent politicians, including former prime minister Jean Chrétien and former Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard.

The issue resurfaced this month after Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, leader of the poll-leading PQ, promised a sovereignty referendum — Quebec’s third — by 2030 if he becomes premier.

In a prelude to what would be an acrimonious referendum campaign, St-Pierre Plamondon this week described Canada as a “bleak” country that wants to “erase” Quebec.

In response, the Canadian Party of Quebec has set up a committee to prepare for “the creation of an 11th province.”

“It’s a reaction to the constant call for breaking up Canada,” party member Keith Henderson told the Gazette. “We’re getting tired of it.”

The party, whose 20 candidates garnered 12,981 votes in the 2022 general election, also cited Premier François Legault’s “attacks on anglo minority institutions.” An 11th province would “ensure respect for citizens’ rights, reduce the stress and anxiety of repeated nationalist initiatives, and guarantee citizens their Canadian identities,” the party said.

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Marc Perez, a West Island business person who previously ran for the CaPQ but has since been kicked out of the party, has set up a separate think tank on partition.

The situation is reminiscent of 1996 when at least four groups raised funds to lobby for partition, an idea gaining steam at the time after Chrétien endorsed the concept.

What does the Constitution say about partition?

It does not refer to partition. However, Article 43 of the 1982 Constitution says “any alteration to boundaries between provinces” must be approved by Parliament and the legislature of the affected province or provinces.

That means Quebec would have to agree to part of its territory being carved out, and that’s highly unlikely, said Patrick Taillon, a constitutional expert at Université Laval’s law school.

But everything is negotiable, he added.

If, say, “the rest of Canada offers Quebec such an important consideration and agrees to all of its demands, could Quebec say ‘OK, in exchange, we are going to create a small, English-speaking province — a city-state like the Vatican in Rome or Monaco in France?’”

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The bottom line: Quebec would have the last word, Taillon said.

Didn’t the Supreme Court of Canada open the door to partition?

Partitionists have cited the 1998 Supreme Court of Canada decision that set what should happen if a clear majority of Quebecers vote Yes to a clear sovereignty question. Canada would have to negotiate separation terms in good faith, the court held.

“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,” the court said.

But the prospect of splitting Quebec up is not mentioned.

“The Supreme Court never said there would be a right to partition,” Taillon said. “The Supreme Court only says there must be negotiations and in these negotiations, the fate of the anglophones — their rights as a minority — are an important subject,” as are the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Could partition come up in negotiations if Quebec votes Yes?

The talks would be between the federal and provincial governments. Municipalities — for example, West Island cities with majority No votes — would not have a seat at the table because they are under provincial jurisdiction, Taillon noted.

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Noura Karazivan, a Université de Montréal constitutional law expert, said the Supreme Court found Quebec has a right to force negotiations for eventual succession.

“Like the federal government, the provinces have inherent sovereignty and their parliaments are sovereign,” she said.

The same can’t be said of municipalities because they “do not have an autonomous existence” since they are “creatures of the provinces,” meaning provinces create and regulate them, she said.

A municipality would have to hold its own succession referendum.

But under Quebec law, a city can only hold such a vote on a question “within its competence.” Karazivan said the “argument is that it cannot be within the competence of a municipality to separate itself from the province that created it.”

Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey said the negotiations are bound to be “unpredictable and destabilizing.”

“When you open this can of worms, as the PQ seems determined to do, and you try to secede, the secession brings about complexities that are very, very difficult to manage. Sovereignty is fraught with danger.”

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Grey added: ”You don’t know what would happen. The only thing I do know is that it would be one hell of a mess.”

He said that in addition to a potential partitionist movement among Quebec federalists, francophone parts of Ontario and New Brunswick that are contiguous with Quebec may want to join an independent Quebec to preserve their linguistic rights.

“Most people realize partitioning Quebec is not a good idea any more than partitioning Canada, any more than partitioning New Brunswick or Ontario,” Grey said.

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In 1996, Grey was among 60 anglophone Quebecers who signed an open letter denouncing partition. He argued the concept “provokes radicalization” and risks creating a “slide towards extremism.”

In an interview this week, Grey said partitionists “assume a sovereign Quebec would be totally unlivable, which I don’t think is the case.” He is skeptical that a majority of federalists would push for partition. Most would either adjust or move away, he said.

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Taillon, of Université Laval, said it would be in the interest of an independent Quebec to treat well its anglophone minority, an important part of the province’s cultural and economic life.

The new nation would want to avoid an exodus like the one that followed the PQ’s first election win in 1976, he said. It would also want to project stability and ensure a peaceful transition.

In exchange for helping “ease tensions and facilitate” the creation of a new country after a Yes vote, anglophone leaders could have “real bargaining power” to protect their rights in the new nation, Taillon said. “I even think that there may be gains to be made for the English-speaking community.”

If Quebec becomes a country, could federalists bolt and join Canada?

An independent Quebec would have a constitution, which could declare its borders unchangeable.

“In international law, there is a right to separate, a right to self-determination which exists for peoples that are the victim of violent oppression from colonization,” Taillon said.

“Unless a sovereign Quebec becomes a violent and oppressive tyranny for the English-speaking minority, English-speakers would not fall into this category.”

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The “right to self-determination is granted to ‘a people,’” Karazivan added. “We’re not going to say that (a community such as) the West Island is a people.”

She said there is no formal definition of a people in international law.

But she cited an expert who has written that the United Nations focuses on several factors when considering a people’s self-determination. They include having “an obvious identity with its own characteristics, a desire to administer oneself freely, and a relationship with a territory.”

What about Indigenous Peoples?

Days before the province-wide sovereignty referendum on Oct. 30, 1995, the Cree and Inuit of northern Quebec held their own plebiscites. In both cases, they overwhelmingly voted against Quebec secession.

Leaders of both communities argue they have the right to decide whether their territories would remain in Canada should the rest of Quebec vote to separate.

That view does not sit well with sovereignists.

In 1997, Lucien Bouchard, the PQ premier, cited experts and the James Bay hydroelectric agreement to insist that Quebec has “a solid title” to its northern territories.

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”The territory of Quebec is endowed with a fundamental characteristic, which is its integrity,” he said. “There is a continuity, without a flaw, of all of the premiers of Quebec and the representatives in the National Assembly being committed to that principle.”

Twenty years later, another premier offered a radically different view.

In 2017, Couillard raised the spectre of the partition of Quebec in the event of sovereignty.

Following the principles of self-determination of peoples, First Nations living on Quebec territory could refuse to live in an independent Quebec and demand portions of its land, he said.

“The only way to completely guarantee the territorial integrity of Quebec, with no incertitude, is remaining part of the Canadian federation,” the Liberal premier said.

“If we recognize the self-determination of peoples, we must recognize it for all peoples and be able to say what the consequences will be.”

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