Stéphane Bergeron (Bloc Québécois): “Canada cannot prevent any referendums in Quebec”

The Canadian federal MP calls on the Spanish government to engage in talks with its Catalan counterpart

Stéphane Bergeron is a Bloc Québécois representative in Canada’s Federal Parliament, where his party came third in the October polls. As a member of the chamber’s Foreign Affairs committee, he states that the Catalan issue is one of his priorities.

How do you feel about the penalties imposed on the Catalan leaders [who were tried by Spain’s Supreme Court]?
They are unacceptable. It is unthinkable that elected officials may be imprisoned in a democracy merely for having allowed the people to vote. Democratic nations should be concerned about what is going on in Spain.

Yet a court of law ruled that the vote was illegal.
The right to self-determination is recognised by international law. And even if it were illegal, it would hardly justify such long prison sentences.

You were an international observer on October 1, 2017 [the day of the Catalan referendum]. Did you witness any violence?
Not myself. I was at a polling station in Girona. We spent all day worrying that Spain’s security forces might turn up. The actions by the police were disproportionate, beating up peaceful voters who were just queuing to cast their ballot.

What are the differences between Canada and Spain?
Canada is a federation made up of different parts. Spain existed before and annexed what we now know as Catalonia. In Canada every level of government has its own sovereignty. That’s how Quebec managed to hold the referendum on its own authority.

Without an agreement with Canada.
Without any agreement. However, federal political leaders did campaign for No. So it was hard for the Canadian government to claim that the vote was not legitimate.

But after the 1980 and 1995 referendums, Canada’s federal government asked the Supreme Court for an opinion as to whether Quebec has a right to secede and then the federal parliament passed the Clarity Act. Why?
After the 1995 vote, when independence supporters lost by less than one point, Canada’s federal government asked the Supreme Court for an opinion on whether Quebec had a right to secession. They feared that they might lose Quebec in the event of a third referendum. The court ruled that if a clear answer was provided to a clear question, Canada would have to negotiate Quebec’s independence.

Who decides what constitutes a clear question and a clear answer?
That is the question. The Supreme Court indicated that this was a political matter. The federation tried to rein in the process with the Clarity Act, stating that it was up to the federal parliament to pick the question and set the required majority. Those of us who support Quebec’s sovereignty disagree. The people of Quebec will never be a majority in the federal parliament. That’s why our parliament passed another law establishing that our nation, Quebec, has the right to decide. And, as far as the necessary majority is concerned, international standards dictate it is 50 per cent of the vote plus one. Canada cannot prevent any referendums in Quebec.

So there’s no agreement with Canada?
No, we don’t need an agreement of any kind. We are not concerned about the Clarity Act. Initially it froze support for independence, but we’re getting back on our feet.

What are the social effects of such a tight result in a referendum?
Whenever a government makes a decision, some will not agree with it. But that is no reason not to make decisions. In Quebec there were no hints of violence before, during or after the vote. People accepted the result of the referendum, even though the difference between No and Yes was less than one per cent. And we will hold a third vote once we’re certain to win.

Do you believe there is a clear majority for independence in Catalonia?
Pro-independence parties should aim to get over 50 per cent of the vote. They must show that a majority of Catalans want independence. If such a majority cannot be obtained in an election, then it would have to be in a referendum.

Could a PSOE-Podemos coalition government bring about any changes?
I haven’t got a crystal ball, but a negotiated solution would be a good thing, where both sides can sit around a negotiating table. If the Spanish government hopes to achieve anything solid in the long term, they must sit down for talks with Catalonia, although that should not prevent Catalans from deciding their future.

What sort of agreement? 
That’s not for me to say.

Yet Spain says it will never allow a vote on independence.
If a majority opts for independence, it is common practice for the international community to recognise it.

Should the EU get involved?
Yes, the EU’s silence at present is embarrassing. It is losing the moral ground. It seems as if it no longer cares about its founding values.

How do you feel about King Felipe’s role?
The issue is whether his constitutional role gives him the authority to make public statements like he did on October 3, 2107. That would be impossible in Canada. The Queen never uttered one word about Quebec’s secession. Her role is merely symbolic and she never plays a part in the decisions of the people or elected officials. The sovereignty of the state does not lie with the monarch, but with the people.

Why have the Canadian authorities denied former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont entry into the country?
That is inexcusable. Entry is an administrative process. Two factors might help: the possibility that Carles Puigdemont may eventually be recognised as an MEP and the pressure from the Bloc Québécois on Canada’s minority government. Our party leader, Yves-François Blanchet, brought up the issue when he met the prime minister.

Do you think Spain has put pressure on the federal government?
Absolutely. The Spanish government has been very successful in its foreign relations. They have said to the other governments: “if you are not with me, you are against me”. We want to be friends with Spain, but also with Catalonia. You must bear in mind that on election night last October Blanchet publicly asked for human rights and self-determination to be respected in Catalonia. And his first trip abroad was to visit Carles Puigdemont in Waterloo. It’s an important matter. My first trip as a member of the federal Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee has been to Catalonia, too.