Feds Fear Referendum Vote

The fateful moment looms. And with only days remaining before Quebec voters' crucial encounter at the ballot box on Monday, Oct. 30, the signs were far from comforting for federalists.

Feds Fear Referendum Vote

The fateful moment looms. And with only days remaining before Quebec voters' crucial encounter at the ballot box on Monday, Oct. 30, the signs were far from comforting for federalists. Five polls in less than a week, all suggesting that the forces of secession in the province were creeping ever closer to, if not a win, then perhaps a loss so narrow that it could herald a new era of woe for the country. Just as ominously, in Lucien Bouchard the separatists have a powerful leader who does not deliver a message as much as he casts a spell. His discourse is full of allusions to "magic wands" and "beautiful vistas." It is a near-mystical appeal, one that allows him to brush aside arid economics, even escape the full wrath that would befall lesser mortals who dared to complain about Quebec's "white race" producing too few babies. What is more, he is not above invoking ghosts from the past, as he did late last week in Rimouski, on the lower north shore of the St. Lawrence River, when he promised 2,000 separatist faithful that as soon as he opens negotiations with the rest of Canada after a Yes victory, "René Lévesque will not be far from my side."

To be sure, neither Bouchard nor his excited followers have certain triumph in their grasp - with or without the revered spirit of the late Quebec premier. The federalist camp may well be reeling from what senior organizer John Parisella frankly admitted has been the Bloc Québécois leader's unforeseen "phenomenal impact" on the referendum campaign. At the same time, however, there are plenty of indications that not all francophone voters have succumbed to Bouchard's potent allure. More than 2,500 flag-waving, chanting women flocked last week to a huge auditorium amidst the strip malls of suburban Laval just north of Montreal, eager to vent their anger over Bouchard's remarks concerning Quebec motherhood. At a Yes rally on Oct. 14, Bouchard had said: "Do you think it makes sense that we have so few children in Quebec? We are one of the white races that has the least children; that doesn't make sense. It means we haven't resolved family problems."

The evening after the women's rally, 3,000 business people jammed the cavernous Palais des Congres in downtown Montreal, enthusiastically cheering speaker after speaker who urged a vote against the Parti Québécois government's independence plan. And on the same day in Quebec City, 800 members of the Metropolitan Quebec Chamber of Commerce chuckled warmly and applauded as Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, making only his second major foray into the referendum campaign, lightly dismissed the Bloc leader as "Lucien au pays des merveilles" - Lucien in Wonderland.

If Chrétien and Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson's federalist troops in Quebec hope to defeat the forces that Bouchard now effectively commands, however, it will require more than witty gibes. Since assuming control of a disorganized and demoralized separatist camp on Oct. 7, the Bloc leader has almost single-handedly managed to stem the tide of events that seemed to be propelling the Yes side to almost certain defeat on Oct. 30. Before Bouchard shouldered aside Premier Jacques Parizeau, the separatists were consistently running six to 10 percentage points behind the federalists in all but one public opinion poll. No longer.

Last week, published polls by five firms suggested that federalists and separatists are locked in a dead heat, a struggle that could go either way. The first to report was SOM Inc. of Montreal. In a survey of 981 voters conducted between Oct. 13 and 16 for the Montreal Gazette and Quebec City's Le Soleil, the company put Yes support at 42.9 per cent and No at 43.4 per cent, with 13.6 per cent undecided or unwilling to answer.

A larger survey carried out over the same four-day period by the Centre de recherches sur l'opinion publique (CROP) for The Toronto Star and Montreal's La Presse turned up a similar result. After polling 1,151 voters, CROP found 43.6 per cent of respondents intending to vote Yes, 42.6 per cent No and 13.8 per cent undecided.

And a Groupe Léger & Léger poll of 1,005 voters released on Saturday in The Globe and Mail and Le Journal de Montréal showed a virtual tie between federalists and Yes supporters. The poll, conducted between Oct. 16 and 20, showed Yes strength at 50.2 per cent compared with 49.8 per cent for the No side, once the 12 per cent who were undecided, refused to say or said they would not vote was factored in. Among the decided, the split was 45.8 per cent Yes and 42.2 per cent No.

Two private polls circulating in the financial community late last week reported similar results. An Angus Reid survey of 1,012 respondents between Oct. 16 and 18 reported that 51 per cent of those who had made up their minds were supporting the Yes, 49 per cent No, while 11 per cent were undecided. An Environics Research Group poll of 619 people over five days ending on Oct. 19 had the No at 51 per cent and Yes at 49 among decided voters, with the undecided at 14 per cent. At the same time, the Canadian dollar plunged as the Yes support grew. On Friday, Oct. 20, it dropped nearly three-quarters of a cent, to close at 73.87 (U.S.), down 0.72 cents, its biggest drop since April 27, 1993.

Even without that supporting evidence, it was abundantly clear that the separatists were beginning to catch the enticing scent of victory. Bouchard, campaigning in Trois-Rivières, could not resist the urge to speculate gleefully on the dismay that will reign in "the historic cabinet meeting in Ottawa" that he predicted will take place the day after Monday's referendum, when Chrétien gathers his ministers to grimly contemplate defeat. Should such an event occur, the cabinet will likely consider a Privy Council Office document, revealed by The Globe and Mail on the weekend, that outlines several legal options the federal government could take in an attempt to block Quebec's separation. But while challenging Quebec's right to secede on legal grounds, the document concedes that "it is unlikely that Quebec would respect federal countermeasures."

Whether by accident or design, however, the Bloc leader suddenly began to stray into territory he has so far studiously avoided. Until last week, Bouchard had taken pains to stress the new partnership with Canada that the sovereigntists are offering, rather than the outright independence that many Quebecers either fear or do not particularly relish. Without warning, he abruptly abandoned that pose in a long and candid interview with La Presse. "A Yes vote will inexorably lead to sovereignty," he bluntly maintained. "It matters little whether or not there is a partnership."

That statement, in essence confirming the central thrust of the federalist argument, sparked widespread confusion. And it spread some dismay among the ranks of the more moderate sovereigntists, who are acutely aware of the sentiment uncovered in last week's Angus Reid survey, suggesting that fully one-third of those who intend to vote Yes will do so in order to give Bouchard "a strong mandate to negotiate a new deal for Quebec within Canada." The Bloc leader himself is a keen student of those polls. And it may be the main reason why, a day after his remarks to La Presse, he found it necessary to backtrack when he addressed the cheering throng in Rimouski. "Before proclaiming sovereignty, Mr. Parizeau and his government have the political, moral, even legal obligation to negotiate a partnership," he assured the crowd. "We can't allow ourselves to be discouraged after a few bad negotiating meetings. We'll have to work with patience and constant determination because as the weeks go by the dust will settle."

It was a far different note from the one that Bouchard had sounded earlier. But it helped to buoy the sagging confidence of Daniel Johnson's federalist troops, who remain convinced that the Bloc leader is riding a popular bubble that will burst when Quebec's notoriously prudent voters cast their ballots next week. "People are fed up with all the facts and figures that have been thrown at them in this campaign," said federalist organizer Parisella. "Bouchard came in like a breath of fresh air. He gave everybody a chance to escape to the beach." As a result, the federalists intend to adjust their strategy to counter Bouchard's uncanny ability to strike a resonant chord deep within many of Quebec's francophone majority. "I think we've been a little off course on that score," Parisella acknowledged. "We have to remind everybody that it is not incompatible to be Québécois and Canadian at the same time."

A hint of what is coming surfaced late last week when Johnson, campaigning in the town of Magog on the shores of Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships, told reporters that while his first love is Quebec, "Canada to me is like a very, very old friend that I don't want to give up." More of the same is in store, as Johnson remarked in an interview he taped for airing this week on the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service's Newshour. In the interview, Johnson outlined what he described as three stages of the federalists' referendum campaign strategy. The first aimed at driving home the message that the vote is really about the separation of Quebec from Canada. The second attempted to warn Quebecers about the economic costs. In the third and final stage, he told his PBS interviewers, "you will see what it means to be Canadian. We will be talking about the advantages of being Canadian."

On that score, the federalist side received a timely boost last week from U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Bending a long-standing official American stance against taking sides in Canada's constitutional squabbles, Christopher stated as clearly as diplomacy permits that an independent Quebec might not enjoy the same advantages in relations with the United States as those now existing between Washington and Ottawa. "I think it's probably useful for me to say we've very carefully cultivated our ties with Canada and they've been very responsive in connection with those ties," Christopher remarked as he stood beside Foreign Minister André Ouellet in Washington. "I think we shouldn't take for granted that a different kind of organization would just as obviously have the same kind of ties."

That comment lent further weight to the federalists' oft-repeated argument that the separatists are attempting to mislead voters into believing an independent Quebec would gain relatively easy access to the same international arrangements as Canada enjoys, in particular the North American Free Trade Agreement. If Bouchard was bothered by the polite rebuke from Washington, he gave no sign of it. In the Bloc leader's view, Christopher was merely indulging in the usual "sibylline language of diplomacy" to reiterate what has always been the "traditional American position" on Canada and Quebec.

While Bouchard's interpretation may be open to dispute, it is true that the Bloc leader has more than a passing acquaintance with diplomacy, as well as with prophecies in the manner of the ancient Roman oracle Sybil. He was, after all, Canada's ambassador in Paris during an earlier incarnation. And as those who have followed his remarkable progress in Quebec's referendum campaign can testify, he is not above the occasional resort to cryptic pronouncements to advance his cause.

Maclean's October 30, 1995