Referendum Question Unveiled

Finally, the question. It is not long: only 41 words in French, 43 in English. Nor is it as clear as Jacques Parizeau always promised it would be. It is, in fact, cloaked in ambiguity, carefully crafted to obscure the full magnitude of the decision that awaits Quebec's 4.9 million voters.

Referendum Question Unveiled

Finally, the question. It is not long: only 41 words in French, 43 in English. Nor is it as clear as Jacques Parizeau always promised it would be. It is, in fact, cloaked in ambiguity, carefully crafted to obscure the full magnitude of the decision that awaits Quebec's 4.9 million voters. For the future of Canada rests on how those voters respond when they go to the polls - almost certainly on Monday, Oct. 30 - to cast ballots either for or against the proposition that the Quebec premier unveiled last week, along with his referendum bill and an emotional "We the people" declaration of sovereignty. "Vote Yes and you are effectively giving yourself a country," Parizeau announced as he tabled the long-awaited wording of the referendum question in the province's national assembly. "People understand very well," he added later, standing before a blue-and-white forest of furled Quebec flags outside the assembly chamber. "A sovereign Quebec is a country. And if we choose a sovereign Quebec as our country, that means we are not choosing Canada as our country."

If the Quebec premier's declarations were unambiguous, the wording of the referendum question he unveiled was decidedly not. In neither the English nor the French version is there any mention of the word "country," much less the possibility of the outright secession of Quebec from the rest of Canada. On the contrary, Parizeau's question attempts to paint independence in softer, more voter-friendly hues, not as the abrupt end of the country as it has existed since Confederation in 1867, but rather as the promising beginning of an entirely new relationship between Quebec and Canada. It manages to accomplish that feat by coupling a vote on Quebec sovereignty to "formal" offers of an economic and political partenariat - partnership - with the truncated and divided Canada that would remain after Quebec had departed.

For many Canadians both inside and outside Quebec, that prospect is at best highly improbable, particularly in view of the shape of the partnership that is being offered. "It's an illusion," snapped Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, echoing a sentiment expressed by federalist voices across the country. Parizeau's question, argued Johnson, amounted to "fog," a blatant attempt to "trick" voters into believing that they are not being asked to endorse the "irrevocable separation of Quebec from Canada." Several premiers, including New Brunswick's Frank McKenna and Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow, warned that Quebecers cannot expect a special deal with Canada if they vote Yes.

Ontario's Mike Harris echoed that view, but he ran into some trouble when he added that Ontario would continue to do business with a separate Quebec. A Quebec radio reporter interpreted that as meaning Ontario would maintain a business-as-usual relationship with Quebec after independence - prompting Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard in turn to say that Harris's remark meant that a Yes vote would not threaten Quebec's ties with English Canada and that the Ontario premier might well vote Yes himself if he was a Quebecer. Harris's aides immediately dismissed that as "preposterous," but the episode illustrated how easily comments by English-Canadian leaders can be twisted to help the sovereigntist cause.

Despite the countrywide objections to the Parti Québécois's claims that a new relationship will be easily forged with English Canada, there is a compelling logic to Parizeau's strategy for the referendum campaign - which a new poll last week suggested will be a closely fought battle. The Quebec premier is acutely aware that a "hard" question on sovereignty, no matter how cleverly it is phrased, stands little chance of being accepted by even a slim majority of the province's voters. As a result, he has abandoned, albeit reluctantly, his own long-standing opposition to anything but a pur et dur form of Quebec independence, divorced from considerations about the new country's relationship with the rest of Canada. He admitted as much himself last week in the national assembly when Liberal Leader Johnson taunted him for changing the stance that in 1984 led him to quit the Parti Québécois government in protest against the party's then-soft line on independence. "Yes, I have evolved," Parizeau acknowledged. "I have evolved because I chose to listen to the people of Quebec."

The first indication of what the people of Quebec were thinking immediately after the unveiling of Parizeau's question showed a sharply divided electorate. A survey conducted last Thursday and Friday by the polling group Léger & Léger for Le Journal de Montréal and The Globe and Mail found 50.2-per-cent support for the Yes side, based on the actual wording of the official referendum question, compared with 49.8 per cent for the No side. Those figures came after analysts allocated the 13.3 per cent of voters who were undecided or did not respond on the basis of past voting tendencies. Before that, 43.8 per cent said they would vote Yes, with 42.9 per cent saying No. Pollsters questioned 959 potential voters, giving the survey a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. That means the poll showed a virtual dead heat in the sovereignty race - despite three days of massive publicity by the Yes forces. That, in turn, cheered financial markets: a rumor about the poll's findings on Friday boosted the Canadian dollar by almost a third of a cent, closing at 74.77 cents (U.S.).

The wording of the referendum question reflected the influence of the PQ's own pollsters on Parizeau, as well that of his two allies in the troika that is now leading Quebec's separatist movement - Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont, the leader and only sitting member of the Parti action démocratique, a nationalist splinter group founded in 1994 as a split-off from the provincial Liberal party. Bouchard's and Dumont's fingerprints are all over the referendum question that Parizeau unveiled last week, just as they are on the accompanying draft law - Bill 1 - that the premier tabled at the same time in the assembly, which sketches the outlines of the projected independent Quebec. It was Dumont who prevailed upon Parizeau to change the name of the bill, excising the word "sovereignty" from its title in favor of the more neutral "future" of Quebec. And the June 12, 1995, agreement mentioned in the referendum question refers to the pact that Parizeau, Bouchard and Dumont signed with much fanfare on that day in the wake of the now celebrated virage, or sharp turn, in separatist referendum strategy that occurred last spring when opinion polls showed that the movement was heading towards almost certain defeat.

The June agreement, a copy of which forms an appendix to Bill 1, contains the details of the "formal" offer on the new political and economic partnership that Parizeau's government promises to extend to the rest of Canada in the event that the Yes side triumphs in the referendum. It envisages a treaty between Canada and Quebec, under which the two partners would agree to maintain existing trade links while creating an entirely new superstructure to govern their relationship. A council of cabinet ministers, composed of equal numbers from Canada and Quebec, with each side having veto power, reigns supreme in this proposed arrangement. There would also be a largely powerless joint parliament, with seats distributed according to population; a trade tribunal to settle disputes between the two new countries; and, finally, a brand new secretariat of civil servants to administer the relationship.

When that unwieldy proposal was first presented last June, it met with howls of derision from everywhere but within the ranks of the separatist movement. Undeterred, Parizeau plowed ahead, incorporating it in both the referendum question and the draft law despite the slim odds of it ever being accepted as a basis for negotiations with the rest of Canada over the possible destruction of the country. There is no great mystery about the reasons why. As many surveys in recent weeks have discovered, Quebec's voters are more susceptible to the lure of sovereignty when it is coupled with offers of a new relationship with the rest of the country. The PQ government's target is the 10 to 20 per cent of the electorate that the Péquistes like to call "hesitants" and the pollsters refer to as soft nationalists. They are overwhelmingly francophones who harbor a yearning for Quebec sovereignty - but only if it is portrayed as an opportunity to remake Canada rather than break it up.

Despite Parizeau's gesture to the soft nationalists, the process he launched last week remains essentially secessionist. The draft law, Bill 1, makes that much crystal clear. While it empowers the national assembly to proclaim sovereignty only after the formal offer of a treaty and the creation of a committee to conduct the negotiations, it also includes a deadline. If talks with Canada are not successfully concluded by Oct. 30, 1996, the assembly would be authorized to unilaterally declare sovereignty unless it decided to extend the date. "The bill fixes the length of the partnership treaty negotiations with Canada and determines how and when the national assembly may make the proclamation allowing Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to pass all its laws, levy all its taxes and conclude all its treaties - in other words to join the community of nations as a sovereign country," Parizeau told the legislature.

The premier also indicated that his government has no plans to adopt Bill 1, or even to have it debated in the national assembly. The draft law is merely intended as a guide to the government's intentions. What will be discussed in the assembly starting this week is the referendum question, which Parizeau was scheduled to table officially. Once that occurs, the referendum clock starts ticking. Under Quebec's referendum legislation, the assembly can debate the question for a maximum of 35 hours, a process that is likely to take about a week. No sooner than 18 days after the question is tabled, the government has the power to issue a writ opening the official referendum campaign. The campaign itself can last no more than 30 days, after which the vote must take place.

Parizeau has still not officially announced a date for the referendum balloting, but he said last week that the probability has "increased considerably" that it will be Oct. 30. In the meantime, Quebec's voters, not to mention the anxious onlookers in the rest of the country, can look forward to a considerable increase in the decibel level emanating from the province. There was a glimpse of what is coming last week when the Péquistes staged their elaborate show on the stage of Quebec City's Grand Theatre, an emotional reading of the preamble to Bill 1, a poetic if partisan account of the province's history as not much more than a long litany of betrayal by English-speaking Canada. "We, the people of Quebec," it concludes, "through our national assembly, proclaim that Quebec is a sovereign country." More than 1,000 PQ faithful and sympathetic nationalists gathered for the event, braving a small knot of about 100 federalist demonstrators waving Canadian flags outside the theatre. Once inside, they heard poet-songwriter Gilles Vigneault and playwright-novelist Marie Laberge movingly declaim the preamble to Bill 1. Parizeau had tears in his eyes as he listened. Even the Péquistes admit that last week's theatrics were designed to comfort those who are already committed rather than convince the waverers. The real debate begins this week when Parizeau tables the referendum question in the assembly. But the outlines of the strategy that both sides will employ to woo the critical "hesitant" voters is already clear. Parizeau and his separatist troops can be expected to bend every effort to keep discussion focused on the partenariat that would be offered to Canada after a Yes vote. "Quebec will become a sovereign state, a country if you like," Action démocratique Leader Dumont said last week. "But it will also become the partner of new economic and political agreement with the rest of Canada, like Europe. Each will be masters of their own house, but in a real partnership."

Just as vigorously, the federalist forces will attempt to remind Quebecers constantly that they face a decision that could mean the end of a long and enduring relationship with Canada that has existed since Confederation, with no guarantees about the future. "The fog-maker is at work here," Liberal Leader Johnson complained in what is sure to be a principal theme of the federalist attack. "The substance of what is at stake is that Quebec becomes a sovereign country, and then there is an offer - and who knows what happens next? Keep your fingers crossed."

In an effort to underline the dangers, Johnson served notice that the Liberals will attempt to amend the wording of the referendum question when it comes up for debate. They want the government to change the wording of the question that now reads "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign?" to "Do you agree that Quebec should become a sovereign country?" It may only be a question of semantics, but to many voters the meaning is quite different.

The separatists are well-prepared to counter the attack. Bill 1, the guide to the government's intentions, is replete with promises for all sectors of Quebec society. It offers Quebec citizenship to all residents of the province, stipulating that it can be held concurrently with Canadian citizenship or that of any other country. It claims that Quebec will keep the Canadian dollar as its currency and "ensure the continuity" of existing Canadian unemployment insurance benefits, child welfare payments, old age and veterans' pensions. Quebec's land borders will remain the same, it says, while its sea frontiers will be expanded to include coastal waters. The new Quebec will apply for membership in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and La Francophonie. All federal civil servants living in Quebec would be guaranteed jobs with the Quebec government. The English-speaking community's "identity and institutions will be preserved." And both anglophones and native people are promised a place in a new constituent assembly that will be created to draft a constitution for the newly independent Quebec.

There are, in fact, so many pledges in the Parizeau government's draft bill that it prompted Johnson to wonder, tongue in cheek, what the whole complicated process is all about if the only objective is "create what we already have, something called Canada." Quebec voters will have to ponder that question - among many others - as they prepare to cast their ballots in just a few weeks' time.

Maclean's September 18, 1995