Vancouver Courier
August 30, 1998

Now that the editorial votes are in, it’s safe to say that the Supreme Court’s reference decision on Quebec separation was a resounding success. By defending the integrity of Canada while setting out broad—very broad—parameters for any future secession, the court has been praised for allowing both federalists and separatists to claim victory. Indeed, each has. 

Yet, for all the delicate wording, anyone who reads the decision with a critical eye can see that it’s an absolute victory for the federalists. The court found that Quebec has no right to unilateral secession under either Canadian or international law—none, aucun. This is the only point that matters. 

The court’s support for Quebec’s right to secede is couched in such qualified, hypothetical language that it is self-negating. Quebec may be allowed to separate if a sufficient majority of Quebecers votes for separation; if the rest of Canada agrees; and if the rights of Quebec’s minorities are respected.

(In the latter case, the federal government could assert that Quebec’s Cree have a right to remain in Canada, and thus retain the huge James Bay and Ungava lands. Quebecers would have to choose between living in a whole Canadian province or in a rump independent state.)

The decision was not so much a judicious assessment of national unity as it was a masterful piece of judicial propaganda. The court told each side what it wanted to hear, thereby keeping peace—such as it is—in the Canadian family. For the government, the court’s rejection of unilateral secession was a foregone conclusion. From the start, separatists were perfectly justified in condemning the court’s involvement.

To prevent an explosion of separatist resentment, the court threw them a bone. It said that the rest of Canada would have to respect a sufficiently large vote in favour of secession, but that’s as far as the court went. Still, the bone was enough to give Lucien Bouchard something to gnaw on. He read into it what he wanted and declared victory.

We often condemn our politicians for their empty rhetoric and tortured circumlocutions, but sometimes a well-spoken contradiction can defuse anger or achieve victory. It’s significant that one of the voices praising the court’s decision comes from the United States, home to one of history’s most successful political propagandists—Abraham Lincoln.

History has immortalized Lincoln for being the American president who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, thereby freeing slaves. The truth is quite different. Though Lincoln personally detested slavery, he rarely spoke out against it and at times publicly endorsed it. Lincoln was a conservative, not a radical, and change had to be thrust upon him.

As a member of the fledgling Republican Party in the mid- to late-1850s, Lincoln faced the seemingly impossible political task of securing support both from abolitionists and from those who felt that blacks should not be given political and social equality. (The party was founded on opposition to the expansion of slavery.)

In Chapter V of his 1948 book The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made it, Richard Hofstadter illustrates Lincoln’s dilemma:

“The motto of the leading Republican paper of Missouri, Frank Blair’s Daily Missouri Democrat, was ‘White Men for Missouri, and Missouri for White Men.’ Nothing could be more devastating to the contention that the early Republican Party in the Northwest was built on moral principle.”

Because of the fractious state of the party, to say nothing of the country, Lincoln customized his speeches. On July 10, 1858, Lincoln told a Chicago audience:

“Let us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man, this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout the land until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.”

On Sept. 18 in Charleston, Lincoln had this to say: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races [applause]…While they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favour of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Lincoln carried his public ambivalence toward slavery into office. Hofstadter wrote that Lincoln committed himself to emancipation only after all other options had failed. He was pushed in this direction by the passage of the Confiscation Act of 1862, which freed the slaves of anyone who supported the rebellion, but since this act was passed during wartime, it had little or no effect.

As for the Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, Hofstadter wrote: “[It] had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading. It contained no indictment of slavery, but simply… declared free all slaves in ‘the States and parts of the States’ where the people were in rebellion—that is to say, precisely where its effect could not reach. Beyond its propaganda value, the Proclamation added nothing to what Congress had already done in the Confiscation Act.

The Supreme Court’s decision may not be exactly analogous to the proclamation, but it’s just as empty. If, years from now, it is held up as a paragon of judicial wisdom, it will be because the myth-makers latched onto its propaganda.