President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper
By Peter McKenna (guest opinion)
If U.S. President Barack Obama is perplexed about the prospect of a break-away Crimea, how will he feel about an independent Quebec? And the selection of sovereignty-backing Pierre Karl Péladeau as a Parti Québécois (PQ) candidate has just given the Péquistes’ independence cause a shot in the arm.
I’m fairly certain, however, that President Obama has never been asked directly about Quebec secession. But if the polls are correct, and the PQ does secure an expected majority government, then the White House should prepare itself for a referendum.
In the past, U.S. governments have not ventured far from the two-part policy stance of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s. First, that the United States would prefer a united Canada. Secondly, that issues around national unity are ultimately up to Canadians themselves to decide.
A third qualifier was graphed onto this position when U.S. President Bill Clinton entered the fray. According to Jean Chretien’s 2007 memoir, My Years As Prime Minister, Clinton confided to him in New York in late October 1995 the following: “You know, Jean, it would be a terrible tragedy for the world if a country like Canada were to disappear. Do you think it would help if I said something?” Chretien was convinced that his intervention would be helpful.
So, just prior to the October 1995 Quebec referendum, President Clinton included an additional stipulation—namely, that an independent Quebec would not automatically become a party to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In other words, all three contracting parties —Mexico, the United States and Canada — would have to first give their approval before a sovereign Quebec could join.
Clearly, the United States has legitimate interests at stake when it comes to the possibility of Canada breaking up. To be sure, Washington has always been obsessed with stability and security on its northern border — and even more so in the post-9/11 era.
That stability and predictability could very well be called into question if Quebec was to secede, and other provinces should follow suit, which is not out of the realm of possibility.
The last thing that any U.S. government would want would be a host of new states, whose intentions are uncertain from a foreign and defence policy standpoint, dotting its northern flank.
How would the White House view the prospect of an independent Quebec seeking to foster closer relations with Cuba, Venezuela or Iran? What if it decided to build its own standing army, to allocate billions to defence procurement, or to adopt more of a global position of military neutrality?
The United States also has critical economic interests at play here. It is actually Quebec’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade totaling almost $70 billion in 2011. It is also true that American companies have an important and sizable investment stake in various sectors of Quebec’s economy, to say nothing of the province’s role as a reliable source of hydroelectricity for the U.S.
Additionally, the PQ’s proposed secular charter and its restrictive regulations on foreign investment (so as to protect Quebec businesses from hostile takeovers) would be further magnified if Quebec was to secede. And these changes would obviously raise eyebrows in Washington and give any U.S. government reason to pause.
The critical question, though, is whether President Obama would actually intervene — and, if he did, what exactly would he say. Would Obama be willing to do Stephen Harper a favour by speaking out against the possibility of Quebec sovereignty? Would he agree to a key request by Canada that his government in no way recognize diplomatically an independent Quebec?
To be honest, I’m not sure that Obama, unlike Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, would be willing to help. He may just say: thanks, but no thanks to Harper. It certainly does appear that personal relations between the two have cooled over the Keystone XL flap.
Moreover, I’m sure that Obama has not been impressed with Ottawa’s public haranguing of his administration for delaying approval of the controversial pipeline project. And it certainly doesn’t help to build bilateral rapport when representatives from the Harper government are kicking sand in his face and aligning themselves with Keystone-friendly Republicans in the U.S. Congress.
Obama may very well be guided solely by calculations of U.S. interests when it comes to Quebec sovereignty. But we shouldn’t for a moment count on that support. Obama could just easily seek to exploit this situation and demand something in return (dare I say access to our freshwater supplies) for not moving to recognize an autonomous Quebec.
Whatever does happen, and no one really knows for sure, one thing is for certain: the United States will be in the thick of things when the whole Quebec sovereignty referendum once again rears its ugly head.
Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.