Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act

In an effort to clarify the process of possible provincial secession, the Canadian parliament took an important step in outlining the conditions by which the secession of one of Canada’s provinces could be recognized.

Summary of Event

The Clarity Act, passed in 2000 by the Canadian parliament, was another step in the long-running effort of the Canadian government to clarify the nature of the nation’s constitution. It arose, specifically, from the failure, in 1995, of a popular referendum in the province of Quebec. The referendum was introduced in order to make Quebec a sovereign nation, independent of Canada, the country of which it had been a part for more than two hundred years. Clarity Act (Canada, 2000)
Quebec sovereignist movement
[kw]Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act (June 29, 2000)
[kw]Parliament Passes the Clarity Act, Canadian (June 29, 2000)
[kw]Clarity Act, Canadian Parliament Passes the (June 29, 2000)
[kw]Act, Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity (June 29, 2000)
Clarity Act (Canada, 2000)
Quebec sovereignist movement
[g]North America;June 29, 2000: Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act[10720]
[g]Canada;June 29, 2000: Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act[10720]
[c]Government and politics;June 29, 2000: Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act[10720]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 29, 2000: Canadian Parliament Passes the Clarity Act[10720]
Bouchard, Lucien
Chrétien, Jean
Lévesque, René
Mulroney, Brian
Trudeau, Pierre

The nation making and the creation of nation-states during the nineteenth century had a populist adversary, particularly in the twentieth century, in the independence movements of smaller groups that were, at some point, co-opted into larger national units. Often, smaller, autonomous groups were subjected to a larger, national identity without the smaller groups’ consent. The separation that these groups experience is usually characterized by cultural distinctiveness, geographic cohesion, and a feeling of being disregarded in the political institutions that are representative of the larger nation. In the twentieth century there were many manifestations of this drive for independence by such groups as the Nationalists in Northern Ireland, the Basques in Spain, residents of Alsace-Lorraine in France and Germany, the myriad national groups of the Balkans, and the Tamil separatists on the island of Sri Lanka.

The Quebec separatist movement derives, in part, from the curious history of the province. Originally part of New France—the effort of the French to establish their own colonial empire in the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—Quebec had been settled by emigrants from France, largely in the last quarter of the seventeenth century. The newcomers had settled in the St. Lawrence River Valley and had retained their cultural cohesiveness, thanks largely to their persistence as an agricultural community. As long as France retained its title to the areas it had settled, there was no controversy. However, when Britain, based on its victory in the French and Indian War, a part of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1753), claimed all of France’s holdings in continental North America as spoils, the seeds of an eventual independence movement were planted.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the British immigrants seeking land who flooded into Canada bypassed the area in Quebec already occupied by the original French settlers. These French settlers preserved their cultural identity as French-speaking people to a remarkable degree. As Britain gradually ceded self-government to the inhabitants of Canada, it preserved the provincial structure, most notably through the British North America Act of 1867, British North America Act (1867) which became the first de facto Canadian constitution. The act, creating a federation of provinces, in effect ceded all of the provinces significant independent identities. The provinces other than Quebec, dominated by immigrants from Britain, retained their British-based culture. Quebec held fiercely to its own, French-based, cultural uniqueness.

Over the years, the Canadian government made many concessions to the Quebecers, such as requiring that French be recognized as a language equal to English throughout Canada. Because education was a local affair, the inhabitants of Quebec were brought up in a French-based cultural context. As a modern-day nationalism spread across Canada, many Quebecers feared that uniqueness would be swallowed up, just as Canadians exhibited a similar fear in regard to their gigantic neighbor to the south, the United States.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, these pressures took a political form, spurred on by the creation of a political party in Quebec dedicated to Quebec “sovereignty,” headed by a dedicated revolutionary, René Lévesque. The Parti Québécois Parti Québécois succeeded in winning the provincial election in 1976 and took over the government of the province. In 1980, Lévesque pressed forward with the demand for sovereignty and pushed a referendum question through the National Assembly of Quebec. Held in May of 1980, the question elicited a no vote by 59 percent of the Quebec voters, but it won sufficient support to alarm the federal government. Voted back into office as Canada’s prime minister, the committed federalist Pierre Trudeau adopted a policy of placating the premiers of the various provinces and, above all, repatriating Canada’s constitution, which up until then consisted of the British North America Act of 1867. The British parliament devolved upon Canada the latter’s constitution in 1982, and, that same year, it was proclaimed in Canada by the queen.

The separatists in Quebec did not consider this enough. They pushed through language legislation that made it mandatory that all public signs be in both languages, with French first. They made it difficult for families not of French-Canadian background to obtain schooling in English for their children. Despite the three Canadian prime ministers of Quebec origin—Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chrétien—the Parti Québécois continued to press for another referendum. This next referendum took place on October 30, 1995, two years after a true son of Quebec, Chrétien, had become prime minister of Canada.

The results were profoundly disturbing to the leaders of Canada. The no vote prevailed, but by a slim 50.6 percent margin. Compared with the results in 1980, it looked as if the “sovereignists” constituted a rising tide. The risk of another referendum in the years ahead was great, but Chrétien devised a strategy that appeared to preempt that possibility. In 1996, he referred to the Canadian Supreme Court the issue of whether Quebec—or, by extension, any province—could withdraw unilaterally from Canada. The “reference” asked the court to determine whether Quebec could withdraw from the Canadian Federation by claiming a right of self-determination under international law. The court was asked to decide whether international law or Canadian law should prevail, in the event that the two had conflicting interpretations.

The decision of the court, announced on August 20, 1998, was brilliant. While it affirmed the right of the Quebecers to self-determination, it imposed limits on the exercise of that right. It asserted that the exercise of the right could take place only following negotiation with the government of Canada and that a majority vote in favor of sovereignty for Quebec would have to be substantial, not, as the “sovereignists” claimed, simply a majority. It asserted that any decision of a province to secede would have to be made in the context of the rights of the “first nations,” that is, the aboriginals, who, in this case, had already expressed their determined opposition to inclusion in a sovereign Quebec. This fact posed the risk that, in the event of secession, Quebec would have to be divided.

To spell out these parameters of the Quebec secession issue, Chrétien’s government introduced the Clarity Act into Parliament on December 10, 1999. While acknowledging the “right” of Quebec to secede, the Clarity Act specified that a “clear majority” must vote in favor; that relations with the government of Canada would have to be negotiated; and that Parliament, in its House of Commons, would have to certify that the language of any future referendum was crystal clear (hence the title of the act). The closeness of the vote in 1995 and the failure of the Canadian government to make clear to Quebecers the consequences of a yes vote had played into the hands of the “sovereignists.” The act set definitive parameters for any future referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec, or any other province.

The Clarity Act was approved by the Canadian senate on June 29, 2000. It was a political masterstroke, as subsequent sampling of voter opinion showed. Although Lucien Bouchard, then the premier of Quebec, fought hard against the Clarity Act, his opposition did not resonate with the voters of Quebec, and he resigned as premier of the province in January, 2001.


By laying out the ground rules for any future referendum on provincial secession, the Clarity Act set limits to the issue of Quebec’s sovereignty. The act acknowledged each province’s right of self-determination, but it set bounds to the exercise of that right. Whether it will have any influence outside Canada remains to be seen. The efforts of numerous ethnic minorities to secure their independence from dominant populations continue to surface throughout the world. In the end, the Clarity Act revealed the potential for a carefully calibrated opposition and set out ways that opposition can operate. Clarity Act (Canada, 2000)
Quebec sovereignist movement

Further Reading

  • Harder, Lois, and Steve Patten, eds. The Chrétien Legacy: Politics and Public Policy in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006. Collection of essays includes a chapter devoted to the Quebec controversy that discusses the question posed to the Canadian Supreme Court and the terms and results of the Clarity Act.
  • Mutimer, David, ed. Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 2001. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006. Collection includes a chapter on Quebec that gives detailed information on the provisions of the Clarity Act.
  • Young, Robert A. The Struggle for Quebec: From Referendum to Referendum? Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999. Although written before the Clarity Act was passed, this book gives a good description of the struggle up to the late 1990’s.

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