TORONTO — To the wrath of separatists, the government asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to rule on Canada’s most volatile political question — whether Quebec has the right to secede unilaterally.
Separatism in the mostly French-speaking province has been the dominant national issue for decades, yet federal officials have never before sought a court ruling on the legality of unilateral independence.
The announcement by Justice Minister Allan Rock was swiftly denounced by Quebec’s separatist government.
“There is only one court that will decide on the future of Quebec,” said Lucien Bouchard, Quebec’s premier. “The verdict will come from the Quebec people in the next referendum.”
Quebec has twice held referendums on seceding from Canada, including a vote 11 months ago in which the separatists stunned the nation by winning 49.4 percent of the votes. The provincial government intends to hold another referendum within the next few years, and Rock said he wanted a definitive legal ruling before the vote is held.
He is asking the Supreme Court to rule on three specific questions:
Can the Quebec legislature unilaterally declare independence from Canada?
Does international law give Quebec the right to secede?
If there is a conflict between Canadian and international law on the issue, which takes precedence?
Rock said the federal government does not contest Quebec’s right to have a referendum aimed at gauging the sentiments of its voters.
But, he said, Quebec’s government is “profoundly wrong” in contending that it could declare independence solely on the basis of such a referendum.
“It is contrary to Canadian law, unsupported by international law and is deeply threatening to the orderly governance of our nation,” Rock told the House of Commons. “The responsible and effective thing to do is submit the issue for determination by the Supreme Court.”
The Quebec government, while insisting international law gives the province the right to self-determination, said it would not argue its side of the case before the Supreme Court.
Instead, Bouchard said he would press ahead with his own agenda, focusing on job creation and deficit-cutting so he can head into the next referendum on sound economic footing.
Quebec, Canada’s largest province in area, has 7.3 million people — a quarter of the population. More than 80 percent are French-speakers.