Clarity Act at 20: a frontal attack on national rights

An interview with Adrien Welsh of the Parti communiste du Québec

Canada is a multinational capitalist state and national oppression and inequality are a big part of how that state developed. In addition to many Indigenous nations – which are the first peoples of this territory – there are nations that emerged from the process of colonization. These include Acadia, Quebec and what is usually referred to as English-speaking Canada. The English-speaking nation is the largest one in the Canadian state, and the capitalist class from this nation dominates state and government policy and orientation.

There are several dimensions to the issues of colonialism, national oppression and national inequality in this country. One of them, which is not always well understood by progressives in English speaking Canada, is the current terrain of the national oppression of Quebec. School textbooks will talk about the poor treatment of the French population prior to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, but they tend to avoid discussing this as national oppression and, except for narrow reference to the referendums in 1980 and 1995, there is very little examination of the situation since the 1960s.

One of the more recent expressions of national oppression against Quebec is the Clarity Act, which came into force 20 years ago this summer, in June 2000. That legislation was controversial at the time and it remains so. In essence, the Clarity Act does three things: (1) it denies that there is a national right to self-determination for Quebec – and, by extension, for any oppressed nation in the Canadian state; (2) it compels the government of Quebec to submit any referendum question pertaining to sovereignty to the federal government for approval; and (3) it gives the federal government the right to (quite arbitrarily) determine what referendum result constitutes a “clear will” for sovereignty, before it may be obliged to accept such a result.

I spoke with Adrien Welsh about the impact of the Clarity Act. Adrien is a member of the National Executive of the Parti communiste du Québec, and a member of the Central Executive of the Communist Party of Canada.

DM: There is generally very little public discussion about the Clarity Act in English-speaking Canada, and probably a low level of knowledge about what it involves. When it is discussed, it is usually placed in very over-simplified terms which focus on what constitutes “a clear will” (ie, 50% plus one, or more?). How does this compare to Quebec?

AW: That’s a very good question. If you asked people on the street in Quebec what they know about the Clarity Act, you would get people who don’t know or remember what this is all about. So, the response of the general population in both nations is somewhat similar. However, the main difference is that within the political left and among people who see themselves as part of the Quebec national movement, this is definitely a very important question and you will find a much deeper awareness and analysis. I think this is the main difference.

The reason there is little discussion about the Clarity Act in English-speaking Canada is that the ruling class of the oppressor nation has no advantage, no benefit, in talking about this. It would just reveal the vile oppression of national rights and, as you said, this is precisely why it is important to discuss the Clarity Act and the national question in general.

I would say this law is a frontal attack on Quebec’s national rights and one of the clearest indications that Quebec is an oppressed nation, despite have benefitted from a certain amount of autonomy. Quebec is not just a nation, it’s also a province. Since the 1960s, economic development has led to the emergence of a Quebec monopolist bourgeoisie. Pierre-Karl Péladeau is an example of this, as is the Premier Francois Legault. But despite this development Quebec still does not have the right of national self-determination, and a perfect example of this is the Clarity Act.

This act allows Canada – through the federal government and the courts – to be both judge and defender in the question of a referendum. The conditions that the act places on a referendum make the exercise of self-determination impossible.

Incidentally, there’s also a double standard on the question of “clarity” – fifty percent plus one is not considered to be enough for separation, but it is considered sufficient for Quebec to remain part of Canada. Furthermore, the act is based on a constitution which has not been accepted by any oppressed nation in Canada and which the people have never had a chance to vote on. It’s anti-democratic.

With respect to the low level of awareness among the political left in English-speaking Canada, it’s important to note that the majority of the NDP, which still has deep reach into the labour and democratic movements, voted for the Clarity Act. Also, for the record, the Green Party was the only party in the house of commons to vote [as a party] against recognizing Quebec as a nation when the Harper government introduced a motion to that effect in 2006.

The Clarity Act isn’t the only instrument of national oppression – how does it relate to other mechanisms?

The act kind of represents the crystallization of different mechanisms into a law. Those other elements include the sponsorship scandal, which allowed the federal government to funnel money to meddle in Quebec’s internal affairs. Other issues are that fact that Quebec has not signed the constitution or that, across the country, francophone minorities do not have the same rights as the anglophone minority in Quebec. People see that the structures of the state – like the courts and some government structures – are imbalanced and are dominated by English-speaking Canada; hence the support for the Bloc québecois.

But the difference with the Clarity Act is that it installs in law that if Quebec wants to separate, Canada is the one who will say yes or no. Big capital – big business – in Canada is afraid of how separation would impact their monopolies and profits. And the issue of Quebec self-determination opens up the hot potato that is self-determination for all nations within Canada and the issue of the constitution. The 1995 referendum scared the ruling class in Canada and that led directly to the Clarity Act.

It’s like having a strike vote, but the boss does the voting.


The act has now been in force for 20 years, which means that an entire generation of Quebecers has grown up with this as the legislative parameters of the national question in Canada. Has this had a particular effect on young Quebecers and their political views?

I don’t think so. The way the national question is felt by young Quebecers is not so much through legislative parameters and through the general political landscape. Partly, the Clarity Act is a bit abstract for younger people because it is focused on a referendum, so while it is 20 years old there also hasn’t been a referendum in over 20 years.

Also, there is a refusal to recognize this law – just a few months after the Clarity Act was adopted, the National Assembly in Quebec voted for Bill 99 which reiterates that Quebec has the right to exercise its self-determination. This position has been confirmed since then, both by the National Assembly and by the Superior Court of Quebec.

The political debate has also shifted somewhat during the 2000s, with the emergence of a very reactionary nationalist movement. This is represented by the Action démocratique du Québec (AdQ), which became the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ). This movement pushes a more Duplessis-style, “identitarian” type of nationalism which is reflected in their preoccupation with immigration and rejection of multiculturalism. It’s a very narrow view of what it means to be Quebecois, and it has begun to shape the PQ approach as well.

But this period also saw the emergence of the Union des forces progressistes (UFP) and Québec solidaire (QS). For Quebec youth especially, the project of independence for the sake of independence is kind of seen as an idea of the past. Youth have been shaped by different struggles, which relate to the national question but have had different immediate demands: free tuition in 2012, against austerity in 2015-16, environmental struggles, solidarity with Indigenous people – this is a very important and timely issue for young Quebecers – and also the issue of anti-Black racism and police brutality. These struggles have shaped the new generation’s view of things, so they lean more towards the issue of sovereignty and a new constitution that is created not so much through a referendum but through a constituent assembly.

Indigenous people have ongoing and legitimate concerns over constitutional matters. During the debate over the Clarity Act, federalist politicians and the media in English-speaking Canada tended to use Indigenous concerns as a vehicle to attack Quebec’s national rights, but without showing any real support for Indigenous sovereignty and struggles. Can you comment on this?

Certainly, the federal government used the legitimate concerns of Indigenous peoples and nations as cover for their negation of Quebec’s national rights. But, while this is the 20th anniversary of the Clarity Act, it is also the 30th anniversary of the Oka crisis. Indigenous sovereignty has been put squarely on the table and in an open way. Within the national movement in Quebec there is, now, a recognition of Indigenous rights and struggles. Québec solidaire, for example, are working to integrate Indigenous sovereignty into their proposal for a constituent assembly. There are definitely flaws with their approach, though. QS talks about the “territorial integrity of Quebec” which means one thing in face of English-speaking Canada, but something very different in the face of Indigenous peoples’ struggles.

From our point of view, it is necessary to recognize the rights of Indigenous peoples and nations, including their right to self-determination up to and including secession. The movement is not there yet, but some important steps have been made.

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