April 3, 2012 / 8:45 PM / 5 years ago

Canada opposition sees low bar for Quebec independence

4 Min Read

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office on Parliament Hill in Ottawa April 3, 2012.Chris Wattie

OTTAWA (Reuters) - The new head of Canada's main opposition party says a simple majority should allow independence for French-speaking Quebec, a far lower bar than the one accepted by other pro-Canada parties and one that could make independence more likely.

Thomas Mulcair, a Quebecker who took over as head of the left-leaning New Democrats last month, said Canada would have to negotiate independence for Quebec if a majority of voters opted for that.

"Quantitatively clear...in a democracy is 50 percent plus 1, period, full stop, that's it," Mulcair, 57, said in an interview in his wood-paneled office in Parliament, one floor up from that of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

That's not the argument accepted by either the Conservatives, or the Liberals, who in 2000 passed legislation entitled the Clarity Act to lay down terms under which Quebec might secede from Canada.

"The Supreme Court of Canada has stated that democracy means more than simple majority rule," the act says in its preamble.

Quebeckers have held two referendums about independence. The most recent, in 1995, was defeated by the narrowest of margins, and emotions on the issue are still raw.

Recalling that he had fought all his life to keep Quebec in Canada, Mulcair bristled at any suggestion that he was taking a weak position in terms of Canadian unity.

"The subtext can't be, so it means you're willing to give up the country at 50 percent," he said. "The subtext is, I'm willing to do what has to be done to make Quebec feel comfortable within Canada and for Canada to be a welcoming place for Quebec."

Mulcair also ruled out any chance of a merger or electoral pact between the Liberals and the NDP, two parties whose combined vote exceeded that of the Conservatives in the May 2011 election.

He the over-valuation of Canada's dollar had cost hundreds of thousands of factory jobs. He said this was the result of oil sands exports, and these exports would not have been as high if the producers faced realistic environmental costs.

Mulcair also said an NDP government would seek to reduce the current 50 percent exemption for gains from stock options, but would leave the 50 percent exemption for capital gains.

The New Democratic Party's positions have come under closer scrutiny since it displaced the Liberals in the 2011 election, becoming the second largest party in the House of Commons with an unexpectedly large contingent of 58 seats from Quebec.

The choice of Mulcair, a bilingual politician, as NDP leader gives it a better choice of retaining its Quebec seats in the next federal election, which is due in 2015.

But his position on Quebec is less popular elsewhere in Canada, and the Montreal Gazette newspaper asked last week if it made him unfit to be prime minister.

The Clarity Act's author, Liberal Member of Parliament Stephane Dion, said Mulcair was misreading a position taken by the Supreme Court of Canada after the close-run 1995 referendum. "If it was 50 percent plus 1, the court would have said so," Dion said. "Mr. Mulcair is failing Quebeckers and all Canadians with the kind of position he has today."

According to current polls, if an election were held today, the NDP would retain its position as the second largest party but would only have a realistic shot at forming government if it formed a coalition with other parties.

In Quebec's provincial politics, the separatist Parti Quebecois is in the lead, ahead of the ruling Liberals. An election there is required there by December 2013.

Editing by Janet Guttsman

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