A Québec referendum, called by the Parti Québécois (PQ) government, was held on 20 May 1980 to ask the people of Québec for a mandate to negotiate, on an equal footing, a new agreement with the rest of Canada, thus honouring the promise it had made in 1976 to hold a referendum before taking steps toward a sovereign Québec.

Setback for Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty-association was rejected by about 60 per cent of voters, although it is estimated about 50 per cent of francophones voters supported it. Some have attributed part of the support for the “No” side, particularly by women, to a remark by Lise Payette, the PQ Minister responsible for the Status of Women. Payette compared housewives, who favoured the “No” side, to a sexist caricature of a submissive woman called Yvette. This outraged the so-called “Yvettes” and ultimately reversed the initial trend of 47 per cent in favour of the “Yes” side to a clear minority of 40 per cent. The PQ leadership maintained that sovereignty remained the only viable option for Québec and would someday win majority support. The federalist side, organized into one group as required by the law governing the referendum, was led by Claude Ryan.

Resumption of Constitutional Talks

In front of a crowd of 10 000 people on 14 May 1980 at the Paul Sauvé Arena in Montreal, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gave a powerful speech and succeeded in persuading many Québécois that a rejection of the Péquiste option would immediately lead to negotiations for a new Canadian federalism. This was the third speech that Trudeau gave during the referendum campaign. Intense negotiations between the federal and provincial governments began right after the referendum, but broke down when all 10 provincial representatives rejected the proposals made by the federal negotiating team to patriate the Canadian constitution, although later many of the provinces (not Québec) agreed to them. Despite its defeat in the referendum, the Péquiste government won re-election in 1981 with a marked increase (9 per cent) in the popular vote. The Québécois felt that Québec’s interests had been betrayed by the other provinces and this translated into increased support for the Pequistes.

The Meech Lake, Charlottetown Accords and Results of Other Referenda

The situation evolved following the election of the federal Conservatives in 1984 and the return to power of the Québec Liberals in 1985. An agreement, the Meech Lake Accord, was reached in June 1987 by which Québec was recognized to be a "distinct society"; however, approval had to be given by Parliament and the provincial legislatures. Ultimately, the Accord (see Meech Lake Accord: Document), which also contained other constitutional changes, was defeated. As an indirect consequence, a national referendum was held in 1992 on another accord, the Charlottetown Accord (see Charlottetown Accord: Document); Canadian voters rejected it. In 1995, another Québec provincial referendum on sovereignty (see Québec Referendum (1995)) was narrowly won by the federalist camp with 50.6 per cent of the vote. The participation rate was an unprecedented 94 per cent.