The Quebec Superior Court has tossed out concerns that a provincial law passed by the Parti Québécois government 17 years ago was a covert attempt to make sovereignty easier to achieve.
In a ruling Thursday — highly anticipated by figures familiar with the debate, if few others — Justice Claude Dallaire upheld the constitutionality of Quebec's Bill 99.
The law was passed in 2000 by then-premier Lucien Bouchard as a response to the federal government's Clarity Act, which defines how a province can secede from the federation.
It famously called for a "clear" majority in a referendum, without specifying what that meant, prompting endless debates about whether 50 per cent plus one would suffice to trigger sovereignty negotiations.
In its preamble, Bill 99 describes the Clarity Act as an intrusion into Quebec's democratic institutions. It declared that no government can "impose constraints on the democratic will of the Quebec people."
Bill 99 also contains a clause stating that a simple majority is enough to win any referendum held by the Quebec government.
No obscure conspiracies here
After it was passed, Bill 99 was almost immediately contested by Keith Henderson, the one-time leader of the Equality Party.
Now defunct, the party managed to get four MNAs elected in 1989 on an Anglo-rights platform.
The federal government joined Henderson in his legal fight in 2013. Together, they argued Bill 99 paved the way for a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec.
But Dallaire's ruling sought to put those concerns to rest.
"There is nothing in Bill 99 that could lead to anarchy or revolution, as the claimant feared," Dallaire wrote.
She pointed out that despite the context of the law, it doesn't specifically state that it aims to move Quebec closer to independence.
Following the passage of the Clarity Act, it was simply an attempt to push back against perceived jurisdictional trespassing by Ottawa, Dallaire said in her ruling.
"We have to put things in perspective and distance ourselves from the thesis that separatists are behind obscure conspiracies," her judgment states.
She also noted that Bill 99 doesn't claim any new powers for the province that are not already in the Constitution.
"In our opinion, the goal of Bill 99 is to reaffirm things that already exist.… [It] does not therefore create a Quebec people and doesn't allow it to secede unilaterally without negotation."
A 'victory' for Quebec
The head of the sovereignist group Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, which had intervenor status in the proceedings, declared Thursday's decision a victory for the entire province, not just the sovereignist cause.
"The judgment confirmed that we, as a people, have fundamental rights and those rights are guaranteed by Bill 99," said Maxime Laporte.
"It's not just a thing between federalists, separatists, anglophones, francophones. We form a people, and everyone in Quebec can define themselves as a Quebecer."
Despite being the work of the Parti Québécois, Liberal governments in Quebec have fought to uphold the law's constitutionality.
"We welcome the judgment," a Quebec government spokesperson told Radio-Canada.
Henderson, who has spent 17 years waiting for a decision in the case, declined to comment Thursday. He said he is deciding whether to launch an appeal.