TORONTO — Setting up a new confrontation with Quebec's separatists, the Canadian government announced Friday that it will take them on in court.
Justice Minister Allan Rock said the federal government will intervene in a Montreal civil lawsuit and challenge separatist doctrine that Quebec voters alone can decide on the independence of the French-speaking province--without regard to Canada's constitution and without the consent of the rest of the country.
At a news conference in Ottawa, Rock portrayed the issue as narrow and legalistic: "The government of Canada has an obligation to uphold the rule of law."
But the decision defies an April 28 warning by Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, the separatists' leader, that he would consider federal intervention in the case a provocation. Bouchard, previously willing to wait until at least 1997 before again putting Quebec independence to a vote in the province, now might accelerate that schedule.
Bouchard did not comment Friday, but Jacques Brassard, Quebec minister for intergovernmental affairs, termed Rock's announcement "an assault on the most fundamental rights of the Quebec people."
Bouchard called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet on Monday to consider a response.
Supporters of national unity, including the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien, have been struggling to formulate an anti-separatist strategy since the last Quebec referendum. In the Oct. 30 vote, Quebeckers decided to remain in Canada by only 50.6% to 49.4%. The close margin and Bouchard's dynamic leadership have led to predictions that the separatists will win the next time.
In what is seen as a victory for those urging Chretien to take a tougher line with Bouchard, the government will file briefs Monday in a lawsuit brought by Guy Bertrand, a lawyer who once favored separation but has since changed sides. Bertrand is asking the court to declare the Quebec referendum law unconstitutional.
Lawyers for the province have responded to the lawsuit by arguing that the Canadian constitution has no bearing on the issue and that Quebeckers are free to decide their own future. It is that position Rock will contest.
The legal justification for Quebec secession has always been murky. Separatists, citing international law and democratic tradition, contend that a simple majority vote in a provincial referendum is grounds for a declaration of independence. The federal government never before has formally opposed that in court but also has never acquiesced.
Other legal scholars say the Canadian constitution would have to be amended to permit Quebec to separate, requiring approval by all nine of the other provinces. Complicating the issue is the fact that Quebec is the only province that opposed the adoption of Canada's 1982 constitution, and in the minds of many Quebeckers that undercuts its validity.
Some of these legal questions may be answered when the lawsuit eventually reaches the Canadian Supreme Court. But there are also political elements in Friday's announcement.
With another provincial referendum expected by next year, both sides are courting moderate French-speaking voters who are Quebec nationalists at heart but doubt the wisdom of secession. This bloc, as much as 20% of the province's electorate, is key to victory.
Bouchard made significant inroads among these voters in the last referendum, in part by repeatedly assuring them that the road to independence would be easier than they had supposed. By raising potential legal arguments against separation, the federal government is seeking to undermine Bouchard's forecast.
But the government also risks offending these moderates, who traditionally oppose what they view as federal interference in Quebec's affairs.