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Talk by Zoran Oklopcic on federalism, urban democracy and popular sovereignty

You are warmly invited to attend and below you will find below the title and abstract of the lecture, Zoran’s bio and a link to his most recent book: Beyond the People (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Dejan Stjepanovic will introduce a guest lecture by Zoran Oklopcic of Carleton University on Wednesday 24 October to held in Dalhousie, 2S13, commencing at 4.30 pm and completing by 6.00 pm.

Multinational federalism, urban democracy, and the meaning of popular sovereignty (in Canada and beyond)

Over the last two decades, the most thought-provoking debates in constitutional theory revolved around a seemingly innocent question: Who is a sovereign people–the bearer of constituent power, and the holder of the right to self-determination? Provoked by the troubling circularity at the root of foundational constitutionalism, this question is particularly salient in the conflicts over ultimate political authority and territorial sovereignty in multinational federations, such as Canada. The 1998 Reference re Secession of Quebec, is probably the most important jurisprudential attempt to address this question constructively. Adopted in 1998 by the Supreme Court of Canada,this widely discussed judicial opinion sets the conditions under which the Canadian constitutional order won’t be able to “remain indifferent” to the “desire of the Quebeckers” to secede from Canada. In short, a constitutional duty to negotiate secession in good faith arises from the interplay of four unwritten principles (democracy, federalism, constitutionalism, and the protection of minorities imposes). What triggers it is a clear majority within a federal unit, voting in favour of secession, on the basis of a clearly-worded referendum question. Having taken the multinational and federal context of such votes for granted, scholars have remained indifferent to the ironic consequence of this line of reasoning in other environments, however:

One referendum majority (in Quebec) can force constitutional negotiations on secession (something that would be highly politically destabilising and which would inevitably sever the bonds of solidarity among different parts of the Canadian populations forever) but another, comparable referendum majority (in Greater Toronto Area, for example), can safely be ignored (even though its demand for more autonomy would in all likelihood be far less destabilising, and even though it would not destroy, but only transform the bonds of socioeconomic solidarity among the Canadians, or even end up being be beneficial to them all. This ironic implication of the Secession Reference will be easily set aside by all those who are willing to uphold ethical and political distinctions on the basis of taken-for-granted assumptions (in this case about the meaning of (multinational) federalism, and (national) self-determination). The time has come to re-examine them–not only theoretically, but also with an eye to the political effects of their acceptance. The most recent bout of autonomist sentiment in GTA provoked by the decision of the new Ontario government to dramatically reduce the number of councillors in Toronto’s municipal assembly suggests that much. Before we commit to the theoretical visions shaped by the existential crises that periodically recur in a deeply divided multinational polities, we should pause to consider the costs and benefits of those vision from the more quotidian perspectives of urban democracy.

Zoran Oklopcic, Associate Professor, Department of Law and Legal Studies, Carleton University

Zoran Oklopcic is an associate professor at the Department of Law and Legal Studies at Carleton University. He earned his SJD from the University of Toronto. He has been a MacCormick Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh; a member of the junior faculty at Harvard Law School’s Institute for Global Law and Policy in Doha, Qatar; and a Hauser Global Research Fellow at NYU School of Law.

Beyond the People: Social Imaginary and Constituent Imagination (OUP, 2018)



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