Dollar Falls

In Quebec, they call it referendum fever. And of all those who fell into its grip last week, perhaps no one was more surprised than René Lepage, director of the community health clinic in the lower St. Lawrence River town of Matane.

Dollar Falls

In Quebec, they call it referendum fever. And of all those who fell into its grip last week, perhaps no one was more surprised than René Lepage, director of the community health clinic in the lower St. Lawrence River town of Matane. Beset by howls of protest from local separatists, Lepage was forced to hastily withdraw an ad from regional television. It was, on the surface, innocuous enough, a grainy 30-second spot aimed at curbing youthful drug abuse. A knot of teenagers was portrayed, surreptitiously smoking a joint at a rock concert. But it was not the image that offended, it was the words. "Dites Non à la drogue," warned the ad - "Say No to drugs." In the supercharged referendum climate, that was enough. "The timing was unfortunate," admitted a chastened Lepage, pointing out that the campaign had been planned to coincide with the opening of the new school term. "I guess there are two words right now in Quebec that are taboo," he wryly added. "Yes and No."

If those two words are dangerous, however, plenty of others were being hurled about with carefree abandon as the referendum campaign began in earnest. The debate in Quebec's national assembly turned suddenly poisonous as separatist and federalist legislators traded insults and accusations, largely about the mysterious origins of unpublished documents. It descended to the point where Mario Dumont, leader of the Parti action démocratique, was moved to publicly object to being labelled a "petit trou-de-cul" - "a little asshole." Few managed to escape the vitriol of the unfolding campaign. It ensnared politicians, television journalists, professional athletes, ethnic minorities and, not least, the Canadian dollar, which took a beating at the hands of currency speculators. Fears that the Yes side had seized the early momentum in the campaign prompted the jittery traders to drive the dollar down by 1.78 cents against the American dollar, shaving 2.4 per cent off its value in just three days. (it closed the week at 73.21 cents U.S.) "The whole currency trading thing has turned into a circus that's almost more important than the referendum itself," noted pollster Angus Reid.

While there were many losers in the referendum campaign's first full week, no clear winner emerged. A new poll at week's end put the federalist forces ahead, reassuring the financial markets and allowing the dollar to make up some of the ground it had lost. The survey, conducted on Sept. 8 to 12 by Montreal-based SOM Inc. for La Presse and the television program Droit de parole, found that 54 per cent of the 1,003 respondents would have voted No and 46 per cent Yes to the referendum question that Premier Jacques Parizeau tabled in the national assembly on Monday. Those figures were derived after undecided respondents and those who refused to answer were distributed in line with past voting tendencies. Before the distribution, the breakdown was 45 per cent against Parizeau's sovereignty proposal, 37 per cent in favor, 12 per cent undecided and five per cent with no answer. The telephone survey had a 3.83-per-cent margin of error either way. (Yet another poll, conducted by the CROP organization for The Toronto Star and La Presse of Montreal, found that 60 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec said that a sovereign Quebec should not be allowed to keep the Canadian dollar, and 70 per cent said that its residents should not be allowed to keep Canadian citizenship and passports. The Parti Québécois's "partnership" plan for a new deal between Quebec and English Canada includes both those proposals.)

The results of the SOM poll boosted federalist spirits, coming as it did on the heels of a previous survey that put sovereigntists and federalists virtually neck and neck. Conducted by Groupe Léger & Léger on Sept. 7 to 8, immediately after Parizeau unveiled his referendum question, that poll reported 50.2 per cent Yes and 49.8 per cent No - a tie given the survey's statistical margin of error. According to SOM analyst Daniel Boutin, the different findings of the two polls may well be a reflection of sober second thought on the part of an electorate four days after Parizeau's theatrical Declaration of Sovereignty in Quebec City.

But it may also be due, at least in part, to the influence of the unfolding referendum debate. And if that is the case, then federalists had reason to cheer. For it was not an easy week for either Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson or his allies in Ottawa, in particular the federal minister responsible for the referendum, Lucienne Robillard. Early in the week, she appeared to be breaking with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's long-standing policy of refusing to speculate about what Ottawa's position would be in the event of a Yes victory. "We always said that Quebecers have a right to express themselves about the future of Quebec in Canada, inside or outside Canada," Robillard told reporters in Ottawa. "We're in a democratic country, so we'll respect the vote."

Both Parizeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard jumped on the comment, viewing it as a sign that Chrétien and his chief referendum spokesman were not reading from the same federalist script. Bouchard vowed to zero in on the issue when the House of Commons reconvenes this week in the hope of finally wresting an admission from Chrétien that he is, in fact, contemplating the possibility of losing the referendum. "We'll have a chance to flush him out and find out clearly what his thoughts are," promised the Bloc leader.

Last week, the Prime Minister refused to be flushed. He soon had Robillard back on track, once again publicly avoiding even the suggestion of a referendum loss. As for Bouchard's threat to confront him in the Commons, Chrétien dismissed the prospect with an offhand remark that the opportunity to joust with the Bloc leader "will be fun." And Bouchard appeared to hurt his own cause when he admitted that while a Yes vote in the referendum would be final, a No vote would not. "The only way to get an end to the issue is to vote Yes in a referendum," Bouchard declared in a comment that further roiled the money markets and depressed the value of the dollar. A No vote, on the other hand, "will never be the end of it," he maintained. "The issue will never die, never fade away. Any decision but a Yes will mean revisiting the issue forever."

Back in Quebec City, meanwhile, the titular chief of the No campaign was wrestling with his own problems, all of them revolving around a series of allegedly hidden documents and studies. Liberal Leader Johnson hammered away at the Péquistes all week, first demanding that the Parizeau government unveil the details of the political and economic treaty it wants to negotiate with the rest of Canada, then alleging that the PQ had deliberately shelved a government-sponsored think-tank report that casts Quebec's economic prospects as a sovereign state in an unfavorable light. But Johnson soon found the tables turned with the appearance of a mysterious 58-page document purporting to be a new Liberal party constitutional position.

It first surfaced in an exclusive report from RDI, Radio-Canada's all-news network. RDI's senior political reporter, Jean Bédard, described the document as a discussion paper that was quietly circulating within the Liberal party, although he carefully refrained from describing it as an official Liberal document nor did he disclose the source or the authors of the paper. The paper, however, contained a few bombshells. Among its nine proposals for constitutional reform was a clause calling for Quebec to turn back the clock on the sensitive language issue, becoming once again an officially bilingual province like New Brunswick.

Johnson simply exploded. "I have no idea what this is all about," he told reporters. "It originates from no party group, committee, research group, commission, subcommission or anyone who can claim to speak in the name of the Liberal party." When Parti Québécois house leader Guy Chevrette later tabled the document in the national assembly, describing it as the Liberals' new constitutional position, Johnson charged the Péquistes - and their sovereigntist ally Mario Dumont - with fraud. "It's a big frame-up," he charged, setting off a furious round of jeers and insults. "I asked myself one question on seeing this document," Johnson shouted, pointing an accusing finger at the government benches. "Who profits from this crime? We know the actors well. Now, we know the authors."

Outside the assembly, Johnson set the Liberal party's lawyers on RDI. They sent a letter to the network threatening legal action. Less than 24 hours after breaking the story, RDI broadcast a report saying that "contrary to what we said yesterday, there exists no link between the Liberal party and the constitutional document we discussed on our show."

For RDI, it was an embarrassing admission. For almost everyone else involved in the affair, it was typical of the level of the debate that marked the referendum campaign's first week. But there were many other unsavory examples. All week long, an angry debate simmered about the role of anglophones and allophones - people whose mother tongue is neither English nor French - in the referendum, sparked by former Tory cabinet minister Marcel Masse. In an interview with an Ottawa newspaper, Masse, newly appointed by Parizeau's government to head Quebec's Conseil de la langue française, warned of trouble if the province's non-francophone voters combine to defeat the referendum. "If a majority of Quebecers - francophones at least - vote Yes, it will be a big clash six or seven months after when they realize that for the first time since 1759 the majority of francophones have no control over their land," Masse was quoted as saying. His comments prompted the Liberals to demand Masse's resignation.

While separatists and federalists feuded in the south, the 7,200 Inuit residents of northern Quebec decided to further cloud the future by staging their own sovereignty referendum on Oct. 26, four days before the rest of the province votes. At the same time, Inuit leader Zebedee Nungak declared that if Quebecers vote for independence, his own people may well decide to stay with Canada, determined to take the northern third of Quebec with them. The province's 12,000 Cree Indians, the Inuit's neighbors to the south, are considering holding a vote of their own, raising yet more uncertainty.

In the midst of all that sound and fury, the currency traders were busily at work, reacting to rumors of new opinion polls showing 70 per cent of Quebecers in favor of independence. The rumors turned out to be false, but, as Wood Gundy analyst Patti Croft pointed out, the volatility of the money market is "poll-fixated and poll-driven" and will not likely stop unless there are clear indications that the No side has a firm and stable lead. Until that happens, if it ever does, Quebec's referendum fever seems certain to rage on.

Maclean's September 25, 1995