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November 18, 2014

Canada's almost nightmare

The Canadian Charger

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Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre, authors of The Morning After (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014) present us with a truly nightmarish scenario: What if the yes side had been victorious in the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty? The book is a must read.

The vote ended with less than one percent separating the two sides, though there were a number of no ballots rejected inappropriately. 

Yet, in spite of the imaginary scenario, we are presented, not with a work of  political fiction but with a careful study based on interviews with key players—just about everyone except Stephen Harper, who demanded a list of the questions to be posed as a condition for any interview.  The authors went ahead without him.

Hébert and Lapierre are journalists by profession, but Lapierre has a more political past, having served in the cabinets of Liberal prime ministers Turner and Martin.  He was also a founding member of the Bloc Québécois.  His past proved valuable in the recruitment of several key interviewees. 

What becomes clear in a reading of the book is that a yes victory would have been followed by total chaos, both among the winners and the losers. 

To begin, then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien reacted to the calling of the referendum with close to indifference, believing the referendum to be totally futile.  He saw the sovereignty effort as dead on arrival.  He had no plan in place in case of a yes victory and no federal policy statement in such a case.  As the opinion polls began to show the federation in serious trouble, he began to react.  He called Frank McKenna, Premier of Nova Scotia, to ask his participation in a national unity government in case of a loss, and McKenna agreed.

There were federal supporters in the rest of Canada (ROC) who did have ideas on what should happen. 

Bob Rae, at the time the NDP leader in Ontario, saw the danger in the referendum while Chrétien was still unconcerned. 

Rae advised Mike Harris, who followed him as Ontario premier, and wrote a speech for him.  The referendum question was convoluted and could be read as a call for negotiation on constitutional revision aimed at weakening the central government, a result that would please Harris, but he would not want any changes that particularly accommodated Quebec.  While he came down hard on no compromise, that was an opening gambit.  In case of a yes vote, he told the authors that Ontario would have taken the position that the referendum question was too vague to justify separation.  That point was the key stance that André Ouellet, Minister of Foreign Affairs, would have taken.  In case of a yes victory, he would have Canada hold its own Quebec referendum, with a clear-cut go or stay option. 

Reform Party leader Preston Manning was prepared to accept a yes victory as a victory for secession, no matter how close the vote, but he openly advocated driving a hard bargain on terms of secession. 

Apparently the authors did not ask him if that implied the possible carving up of Quebec.  First Nations in Quebec were putting that option on the table.  Manning would also have demanded Chrétien’s demission, along with the Liberal government, and a call for a fresh election.  In case that did not happen promptly, the Reform caucus would have withdrawn from the House.

Interestingly, Roy Romanow, NDP Saskatchewan premier and a friend of Chrétien’s, was working on his own contingency plan. 

He had secretly established a planning group to examine all possibilities in case of a yes.  One idea that crossed his mind was a Western secession to form a new country.  At the time Saskatchewan was experiencing hard economic times and was in no position to stand alone, so that option seemed interesting.  When he shared the idea with other Western premiers, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein shot it down, calling it treason. 

At her presentation at the Ottawa Writers Festival in October, Hébert spoke of a conversation she had with an unnamed NDP Saskatchewanian, who told her that Manning’s position was popular with NDP supporters there.  She thought that Manning’s position, encompassing Stephen Harper’s as well, might be part of the reason that the reconstituted Conservative Party was able to come to power in Ottawa.

The dramatic move by the feds in calling for the October 27 rally by ROC demonstrators showing their love for Quebec was sold to Chrétien by Brian Tobin, “one of the key movers,” according to the authors.  Did the demonstration make  the difference in the vote, or, as some have argued, did it just make Quebeckers angry as being a foreign intrusion?  Quebec ministers in the Chrétien government  appeared to be of the latter view. 

While the federal side and the Chrétien government would have been in total disarray in the aftermath of a federal victory, with conflicting positions on what to do in dealing with Quebec and with the very authority of the government in power in question, the yes side was also far from united.  There were two viewpoints, that of Parti Québécois Premier Jacques Parizeau and that of Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard and Action Démocratique leader Mario Dumont. 

Parizeau called Bouchard  in to take the leadership of the yes side in the middle of the campaign, as he saw victory slipping away, and he saw Bouchard as someone who was seen as more moderate, someone who could attract a wider following.  Bouchard was more of a soft sovereignist, in reality wanting renewed federalism, as conservatives (big and small C) in the ROC called it—a weakened central government with more authority for the provinces.  Along with that, he sought things like recognition of Quebec as a distinct society.  That recognition, the bane of Reformists, came about only with a Harper government, paradoxically. 

If the yes side had won, it was Parizeau’s plan to jettison Bouchard and his ideas, instead moving rapidly to independence.  Bouchard played his role in rallying support, and now he was to be set aside.  Yet, Bouchard’s position was, in the final analysis, complementary to that of ROC right-wingers like Manning, Harper, and Harris.  Aside from the issue of nationalism, the Bloc Québécois leader and the ROC reactionaries could have been a team.  A good thing that the referendum went down to defeat—along with the other referenda on the Meech Lake Agreement and the Charlottetown Accord.

This book is a valuable contribution to any future history of the 1995 Quebec referendum.

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