Henry Srebrnik, The Calgary Herald
It's been more than a year since Jean Chretien retired from politics. His old friends and political allies are looking about to cement into place his political legacy.
One of his top former political advisers, Warren Kinsella, recently stated that Chretien's greatest policy achievements were in the field of national unity.
Kinsella called the Clarity Act, passed in June 2000, a "political masterstroke" and noted that when Chretien left office last December, the federal Liberals led in the polls in Quebec.
But the Clarity Act, which sets out a clear legal mechanism for the secession of a province, was really the brainchild of the old Reform party.
Following the October 1995 Quebec referendum, almost won by the sovereignists, Reform released Twenty Realities of Secession, a working document which laid down terms for bargaining with Quebec in the event of that province's departure.
It was written by Stephen Harper, today the leader of the Conservative Party, and then a Reform MP. It was published, along with 20 Proposals for a New Confederation, in January 1996, in a pamphlet entitled 20/20: A Vision for the Future of Canada.
The Liberals throughout the referendum campaign had attacked Reform, accusing the party of obstructionism and, by breaking solidarity within the federalist camp, of undermining the campaign against Quebec separatism.
But unlike the Liberals, who had refused to discuss such issues, Reform faced the tough questions head on. Harper pressed the government for its response to Reform's Twenty Realities, but, he complained, received no satisfactory answers.
Yet most of what appeared in Twenty Realities was later incorporated into the Liberal party's own Clarity Act. It was political scientist Stephane Dion, who in January 1996 had become the federal minister of intergovernmental affairs, who picked up the Reform ball and ran with it.
On Sept. 30, 1996, the federal government referred the matter of Quebec secession to the Supreme Court of Canada. It asked whether the National Assembly, legislature, or government of Quebec could effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.
On Aug. 20, 1998, the Supreme Court concluded that Quebec does not have, either under Canadian law or international law, the right to leave Canada unilaterally.
However, the court also emphasized that the rest of Canada would have a political obligation to negotiate Quebec's separation if a clear majority of that province's population voted, in a clear question put before them in a referendum, in favour of it.
Following the court's ruling, the Chretien government on Dec. 13, 1999, tabled the Clarity Bill in the House of Commons. It became law on June 29, 2000.
The act set out the principles and procedures that would guide the House of Commons in the event of an attempt by a separatist government to leave confederation.
If, after a referendum on a clear question, the government of Quebec sought negotiations on secession, the House of Commons would need to determine if there had been a clear majority with a clear will to secede. There would be no negotiations without such clarity.
This was indeed what Harper had been asking for a few years earlier. But needless to say, he got no credit for it. Our natural governing party is very adept at plagiarizing the programs of other parties when it suits them. Just ask any member of the NDP as well.
As for Chretien increasing Liberal support in Quebec, after Adscam hit the fan shortly after Paul Martin became prime minister, the Bloc Quebecois won 54 of the province's 75 seats in the federal election last June. It still remains the dominant party in Quebec. And Martin has been far more accommodating to Quebec nationalists than his predecessor was.
History will no doubt demonstrate that whatever Chretien's achievements were, strengthening national unity was not among them.