The facts of this case are: Quebec never signed the Canadian Constitution. In the early 80s, the Parti Québécois won the majority vote of the Quebec Provincial Election. The party then held a referendum, asking Quebec’s citizens if they should ask for a mandate, and negotiate sovereignty for Quebec. The referendum resulted in a 60 – 40 defeat. The party was re-elected the next year, promising not to hold another referendum.
The next year, the Canada Act was passed. Quebec’s Premier, René Lévesque refused to sign it. The federal government tried to negotiate a compromise, the case of this being the Meech Lake Accord. During this, the government negotiated five modifications to the Canadian Constitution, but with opposition from other provinces, the Accord was defeated.
In ‘94, Parti Québécois was again, re-elected, and announced a second referendum. The question was of sovereignty and an optional partnership with Canada. The referendum was , again defeated by a minuscule margin. Quebec then adopted a bill which laid out Quebec’s plan if a future referendum were to succeed.
The federal government, who was opposed to Quebec’s sovereignty were frightened by the referendum’s voting numbers. The opposed questioned the legality of the secession. Parti Québécois leader, Lucien Bouchard announced a third referendum, confident of the “winning conditions” . In reaction to this statement, Prime Minster Chrétien initiated a reference to answer the legality of secession from Canada.
The issues of this case were: Can Quebec leave Canada, if it were to win the secession? Does international law give Quebec the right to effects it’s secession of Canada unilaterally? In the event of a conflict between domestic and international law, on the right of Quebec to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally, which would take precedence in Canada?
The government “won” the case, as it was defined that Quebec trying for unilateral secession wasn’t legal, but if a majority agreed, terms for the secession would be negotiated, and that international law wasn’t applicable to Quebec’s situation.
A major point the judges established was, the democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole. This could be used as a precedent for other states/provinces who wish for sovereignty.
The logic the judges used to arrive at the outcome is by identifying the four fundamental tenets of the constitution: democracy, constitutionalism and the rule of law, federalism, and the protection of minorities. They held that all must interact as a part of the constitution, and can’t be viewed independently.
For international law, the court stated that the right to secede was only meant for people under a colonial rule or foreign occupation . Otherwise, as long as people have the right of self-determination within an existing nation, there is no right to secede unilaterally.
With the conflict between international and domestic law, the courts saw nothing conflicting between canadian law, and international law (neither of which allow Quebec to secede). The judges considered it unnecessary to answer the question.