This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 6, 1995
It took 128 years to make Canada into the country that it is today - and 10 hours of voting and a margin of only 53,498 votes to almost break with that past and reshape both the map and the country's future. No, 50.6 per cent, total votes: 2,361,526. Yes, 49.4 per cent, 2,308,028 votes. In however much time remains to Canada as a united country, those figures are likely to stay burned on the consciousness of federalists and Quebec sovereigntists alike. By that narrowest of margins, the dream of preserving one existing nation almost died on Monday night, and the dream of building a newer, smaller one within Quebec was thwarted - for now. "The people have spoken, and it is time to accept that verdict," said a clearly relieved Prime Minister Jean Chrétien early Tuesday morning, when it finally became clear that the No side had won. But, said Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, in a defiant speech that was in sharp contrast to Chrétien's attempt to make peace, "the battle for a country is not over. And it will not be until we have one."
So near and so far for sovereigntists, and so uncertain and unsatisfying a result for both sides. The vote result means that Canada survives - by the barest of margins, and, perhaps, for the briefest of periods in its present form. The final result, which took close to four hours to record, showed the two sides divided by fewer than 54,000 votes out of a total of 4,669,554 cast, and the province riven by cleavages along linguistic, ethnic and regional lines. Montreal, the metropolis and economic motor of the province, voted massively No: the rest of Quebec, with the exception of the Ottawa Valley region, went strongly to the Yes side. Montrealers and ethnic and anglophone voters joined together to defeat Yes voters who were overwhelmingly francophone native-born Quebecers from other regions.
In the months to come, the pressure from both federalists and sovereigntists in Quebec to reform the Constitution will be overwhelming - and the willingness of the rest of Canada to make a concrete gesture towards keeping the province within the federation is likely to be severely tested. Chrétien, the Prime Minister who campaigned on a promise not to talk about the Constitution, will now find himself obliged to do precisely that. The honeymoon that he and his government have enjoyed with voters is almost certain to end - at exactly the time that it was supposed to take its toughest measures. And the divisions provoked in the wake of the razor-thin margin of the No victory will test the social fabric of the country as never before.
Some of those, in fact, were raised by Parizeau in a bitter, rambling speech in which he made a point of repeatedly blaming the Yes side's loss on ethnic voters - who voted No in massive numbers - and business leaders. After making several references to the fact that a majority of francophone voters supported sovereignty, he said the Yes side was defeated by "money and the ethnic vote." The speech was bitterly criticized by federalists - and by some horrified sovereigntists. "His remarks are anti-democratic in the worst extreme," said No organizer Liza Frulla. But other signs of the strains caused by the referendum were already evident: shortly after it became clear that the No side had won, Montreal riot police were called in to guard their voting-night headquarters against angry Yes supporters.
All of that means that after the initial sense of relief among No supporters wears off, many may soon wonder which side was the real winner. Even as the lead seesawed back and forth between the two sides, buoyant Yes leaders were already making it clear that they will be back, with another sovereignty referendum as soon as they can, and with a sense of momentum that they are convinced is unstoppable. "If we have not succeeded today, it only means that we wait until tomorrow," said Quebec deputy premier Bernard Landry. "We will begin again, and we will not stop until we have our nation." And, said Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard in a fiery concession speech to Yes supporters: "The sovereignty movement is more alive than ever. Keep hope alive - the next time will be for real."
Still, across the rest of the nation that remains Canada, there was a palpable sense of relief. The streets of most major cities were empty as Canadians sat in record numbers in front of television sets, monitoring a race in which the two sides were seldom separated by more than a few thousand votes. In one gathering on the campus of the University of Calgary, about 200 students and professors gathered over pizza and beer to anxiously watch the results. They groaned in disbelief as the Yes side moved to an early lead, and started cheering wildly as the No side finally began gaining ground - sometimes by as little as several hundredths of a percentage point. "I can't believe this is happening," one student cried.
But among the political leaders who will guide the country through the difficult days ahead, there was also an awareness that the final result is more like a reprieve than a real victory. "We have won the battle," said an adviser to Chrétien, "but the real war is just about to begin." And New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna told Maclean's: "We would be fools if we did not interpret the results as the desire of people in Quebec to see real change. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister will have to grapple with the kind of change that is."
So, too, will McKenna and other premiers. In the months to come, the final result raises far more questions than it answers for almost all the key figures in the referendum - and, in the long term, for all Canadians. The PQ, which under the terms of Quebec's Referendum Act cannot hold another plebiscite in its present mandate, will probably seek a reason to go back to the polls in a provincial election at the earliest opportunity. Parizeau, who stepped aside to let the more popular Bouchard become de facto leader of the Yes campaign, may step down in that event and allow the charismatic Bloc leader to take his place. In the meantime, although Bouchard once said he would leave his seat in the House of Commons in the event of a No win, there appears little likelihood that he will do that.
In the short term, in fact, the politician with the most to lose is the ostensible winner, Chrétien. Visibly edgy, and accompanied by half a dozen senior advisers. he paced from room to room at his residence at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa as the results trickled in. On a personal level, the near-victory of the sovereigntist side that he has spent most of the past 30 years fighting is a devastating blow. Already, both within the Liberal caucus and in political circles across the country, he is being second-guessed and criticized for severely underestimating sovereigntist strength. The federal Liberals were so confident of victory that they did not even consider how they would react to a loss until the campaign was already under way. Even as the Yes side began pulling even in the polls two weeks ago, complained one insider, "there was no Plan B."
Now, they find their credibility undermined at precisely the time that they need it most. Plans for the 1996-1997 federal budget, in which Finance Minister Paul Martin plans to cut billions in spending, are already behind schedule, and the narrow margin of the No victory could put Ottawa's entire fiscal agenda at risk. There are worse fights ahead. Over the next two years, Ottawa will cut about one-third from the $16.8 billion in cash that it transfers annually to the provinces for health, social assistance and postsecondary education. On April 1, 1997, the current formula to divide that cash lapses. That means that over the next 18 months, and in spite of the fractious atmosphere that seems likely, Ottawa and the provinces must devise a new formula to divide that dwindling total. The situation is volatile because the current formula penalizes the richer provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta. Those richer provinces simply will not tolerate a continuation of the current system, which now gives them less money per resident than the other seven provinces. But the PQ is certain to exploit any attempt to reduce the amount that Quebec now receives.
Those are longer-term headaches. In the short term, one of the first effects of the narrowness of the victory was that the Prime Minister was reconsidering plans to leave for a 17-day trip to the Asia-Pacific region. That trip, designed to stimulate investment, was also supposed to emphasize the government's business-as-usual approach to governing the country in the wake of the vote. Instead, it only highlights the fact that the business of governing the country is about to become anything but usual.
After Parizeau's argument that Quebecers should vote for sovereignty in order to preserve social programs, the federal government will face enormous pressure to shelve plans to reform and reduce unemployment insurance - one of its keys to deficit reduction. Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy had planned to shave at least $1.6 billion from the present $13.7-billion total that the government currently spends on unemployment insurance. Similarly, plans to increase the qualifying age for old-age pensions and reduce the size of benefits for wealthier recipients may also be shelved. Without such measures, it will be almost impossible for Martin to achieve his deficit reduction targets.
But in the battle to keep the country together, even those plans pale in significance alongside the need to suddenly come up with new and substantive proposals to reform the way that Canada is governed in a manner that will appeal to all Canadians. Just as Pierre Trudeau committed himself to a promise of constitutional reform near the end of the 1980 referendum in a manner that still reverberates 15 years later, Chrétien is now bound to live up to his promise to support recognition of Quebec's "distinct society." That, in fact, may be an easier task than it appears at first glance. The recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, a cornerstone of the province's demands, is less controversial than many Canadians realize: the Supreme Court of Canada has already recognized Quebec's distinct character in its interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under the Constitution Act of 1982, an amendment that recognizes Quebec's status as a distinct society would require the consent of Ottawa and any seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population. The very wording of that amendment would be contentious because provincial leaders will want to limit the scope of its application. But most legislatures would likely pass it - if only because they have been so traumatized by Canada's close call.
Other proposed changes are likely to be less contentious, but no less important. Constitutional change, said McKenna, "is important, but administrative change is perhaps as important." That means that such dry but important topics as control over manpower training are likely to rise to the top of any agenda for change. Already, last summer, the federal government considered a plan to try to short-circuit sovereigntist strength before the referendum by offering the provinces exclusive control over manpower training. But the plan was scuttled by opposition from Liberal MPs from Atlantic provinces who felt that their provinces lacked the resources to run such programs properly. But now, the federal government seems certain to resurrect the issue. Similarly, Chrétien is likely to accord much greater urgency to a study group chaired by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Marcel Massé, who is looking at ways to reduce duplication of services between Ottawa and the provinces. Some action on Massé's recommendations, a senior government adviser said late last week, "would be most desirable in a matter of months, not years."
Another contentious issue, the restoration and formal recognition of Quebec's traditional right to a constitutional veto, is likely to take longer, and face more intense opposition. In another late-campaign promise, Chrétien said he would never allow the Constitution to be amended in a manner that would affect Quebec without the province's consent while he is Prime Minister - but he stopped short of offering the province a formal right of veto. That matter is likely to wait until 1997, when the Prime Minister is required by the terms of the Constitution to hold a meeting on constitutional reform with the premiers.
But a more compelling and immediate challenge for Chrétien will lie in teaching Canadians and Quebecers to believe in each other and their shared country again. The mass displays of affection towards Quebec in the final days of the campaign were seen with enthusiasm by some, and suspicion by many. "Why do they wait until we threaten to leave to tell us they like us?" asked a young francophone woman who watched last week's mass No rally in Montreal. And, said Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Louise Beaudoin after the loss: "English-Canadians have talked a lot about how much they like us. Now, it's time to do more than talk." Otherwise, it will not be long before the country finds itself dancing one last time towards the edge of the constitutional abyss, unable or unwilling to turn back.
Maclean's November 6, 1995