10 November 2003

Secession movements

Although there are rumours in some quarters to the contrary, I have never been a fan of secessionist movements. Here in Canada Québec separatism never completely goes away, even if it fades into one of its periodic dormant states, as it has now. Like a divorce, breaking up a political community along geographic lines is a messy and painful business, even when it does not involve the shedding of blood, which it often does. No one should wish to see the shattering of Yugoslavia or the Russian-Chechen conflict replicated domestically. As territorial states normatively constitute a space within which it is possible to appeal to a uniform standard of justice, the dismembering of such states inevitably places the doing of justice in a precarious position.

In Québec the Parti québécois governments, when they were in power, always claimed the right unilaterally to separate the province from the rest of Canada if they received a mandate from their own people in a referendum. In 1995, when the aboriginal peoples in the north held their own referendum overwhelmingly opting to stay with Canada, Québec City was reduced to issuing threats and simply asserting that they would not be allowed to do so. Yet it could not come up with a good reason why Québec had a right to separate, but the Cree and Inuit lands did not. The only way to settle such a disagreement, it would seem, is through force of arms, especially since the province would have removed itself from the jurisdiction of those common Canadian institutions that might be able to adjudicate the dispute. For all these reasons and more, I cannot summon up much enthusiasm for separatist movements.

That said, however, if there is an overwhelming consensus within a political subcommunity, such as a province or state, that membership in a larger federation is no longer doing justice to its legitimate interests, then the federal government would be ill advised to hold on to the subcommunity against its will. If a substantial majority of Quebeckers wanted out of Canada, then it is difficult to imagine Ottawa sending in the troops to prevent this. Furthermore, I doubt that Canadians would wish to see the federal government do this.

Had I been alive back in 1861 in the United States, I doubt I would have supported Washington's effort to hold on to the southern states by force. Had the American founders explicitly stated in their Constitution that states, once admitted to the union, had no right subsequently to withdraw, many, if not most, states might have seen fit to stay out altogether. Given that the founders failed even to mention the issue -- a rather major flaw in an otherwise good document -- there was reason, even among those favouring continued unity, at least to give the southern states the benefit of the doubt. The subsequent war resulted in huge numbers of casualties, which might have been averted if a more flexible and conciliatory approach had been followed by both sides.

As I wrote some weeks ago, in its draft constitution the European Union has provided for the possibility of a member state withdrawing from the union. Although I am no more a fan of secession movements than I am of divorce between spouses, placing both on a firm legal basis simply makes sense.

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