Revisiting Mistakes of the 1995 Quebec Referendum

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 31, 2005. Partner content is not updated.

HAS IT REALLY BEEN a decade since the votes were counted? Indeed it has: Oct. 30, 1995. Yet the Quebec sovereignty referendum resists our best attempts to tuck it into the neat cubbyhole of memory. In so many ways, the campaign of 1995 is still going on.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on October 31, 2005. Partner content is not updated. HAS IT REALLY BEEN a decade since the votes were counted? Indeed it has: Oct. 30, 1995. Yet the Quebec sovereignty referendum resists our best attempts to tuck it into the neat cubbyhole of memory. In so many ways, the campaign of 1995 is still going on.

Revisiting Mistakes of the 1995 Quebec Referendum

HAS IT REALLY BEEN a decade since the votes were counted? Indeed it has: Oct. 30, 1995. Yet the Quebec sovereignty referendum resists our best attempts to tuck it into the neat cubbyhole of memory. In so many ways, the campaign of 1995 is still going on. Jacques PARIZEAU likened the events leading up to his big night to the periods of a hockey game. It finished in a tie. The overtime period refuses to end.

In Ottawa, the grim highlight of November will be the release of Justice John Gomery's report into the worst excesses that occurred on Jean CHRÉTIEN's watch in the aftermath of 1995's near-defeat. In Quebec, the month will reach a peak of sorts with the announcement, on Nov. 15, of the Parti Québécois' new leader, the third since Parizeau quit and, if the winner is the prickly young boulevardier André Boisclair, the first in the party's history who didn't belong to its founding generation.

The national political parties - and all of us with them - feel trapped in an electoral Groundhog Day. The whole country is stuck in a deadlock whose defining characteristic is the national parties' inability to win a few dozen Quebec seats from the Bloc Québécois. When it comes to winning Quebecers' hearts, or even their self-interest, today's federal leaders are at a chronic loss for good ideas. This is not ideal, given the unpopularity of Jean Charest's government and the unnerving tendency of poll respondents in Quebec to reply that if asked the same question today, they would vote Yes in roughly the same proportion as a decade ago.

Given all that, it's worth examining the tea leaves of 1995 yet again for fresh lessons. Three recent books, published only in French and barely noticed outside Quebec, offer handy guidance.

The third volume of Pierre Duchesne's epic Parizeau biography, Jacques Parizeau Tome III: Le régent, 1985-1995, reminds us who the real driving force of 1995 was: Parizeau, who managed to carry out his referendum despite the repeated objections of all his allies. Among the most stubborn skeptics was Lucien BOUCHARD, whom everyone remembers as the darling of the 1995 campaign but who certainly would never have launched it if the choice had been his. "Improvised politics is improvisation," Parizeau told Duchesne in 2000. "So if you're elected with a program, you carry it out. The polls say we're losing, that we're headed for a wall? Then we knock the wall down!" And Bouchard? "Lucien Bouchard has the reflexes of a loser," Parizeau says.

Charisma is no substitute for force of character. Even today Bouchard gets too much credit (or blame) for two good weeks of campaigning, and Parizeau not enough for getting the movement to a point where Bouchard could strike. The members of political parties are forever looking past bulldogs in search of swans. The weakness of Bouchard and Bernard LANDRY when each took over the PQ leadership was not that they were unlovely, but that they were not daring. Fortunately for Canada, the PQ is no closer to learning this lesson than most parties. It is preparing to choose between Boisclair and the energetic panderer Pauline Marois, both of whom were among the PQ's foot-draggers a decade ago.

There is another candidate who shares both Parizeau's unshakable certainty and his grasp of secession's complexity, which the leading lights of the sovereignist movement prefer to ignore. This candidate is losing badly.

Louis Bernard emerges as a key Parizeau ally in Duchesne's book. He was a senior mandarin in René Lévesque's government before the 1980 referendum. Parizeau called upon him again, as secretary general to the government - and, Duchesne reveals, to execute two crucial secret projects. In late 1993, Bernard's mandate was to figure out how to deliver on Parizeau's desire to hold a referendum as soon as possible after an election. In early 1995, he helped define the possible economic relations between Canada and a seceding Quebec.

You'd think the PQ would look long and hard at a man Jacques Parizeau trusted to do his heavy lifting. Secession is hard. It triggers questions of constitutionality and international law that have nothing to do with ordinary public administration. Parizeau was nearly the only serious theorist of secession his party ever had. Bernard is another. But he is a clumsy public performer who has taken to criticizing his party, albeit with considerable accuracy, for its sloppy thinking. Péquistes would rather succumb to the dubious charms of two professional flatterers, Boisclair and Marois.

Still, it would be easier to take comfort from the losing battle for seriousness in the PQ campaign if the federalist side had not shown itself to be perfectly capable of shooting itself in the foot too. Any federalist willing to learn from failure would do worse than to examine two other recent books.

Mario Cardinal's Point de rupture (Breaking Point) is drawn from the research and interviews conducted by CBC and Radio-Canada teams for the English- and French-language public broadcasters' recent four-hour miniseries about the referendum.

The strength in Cardinal's book comes from the exhaustive reporting. But the author, a former Radio-Canada ombudsman, is almost too non-partisan. Readers are left to draw their own conclusions. To say the least, the same can't be said for Robin Philpot's Le référendum volé (The Stolen Referendum). Philpot was born in Thunder Bay, Ont., and his first language is English, but he has been an articulate advocate of Quebec sovereignty for many years. Philpot believes Canada stole the 1995 federalist victory. Federalists who wade through Le référendum volé will find a screed written by a man who believes Canada contemptible. Yet there's also in Philpot an element of Michael Moore's cleverness. Philpot interviewed several leading federalists - Sheila Copps, Brian Tobin, John Rae - in English, coaxing them into admissions they would never have made if they had realized their interviewer was a separatist.

Philpot's specific beef is that by intervening in the 1995 REFERENDUM, Canadians outside Quebec violated the international right of peoples - the Québécois people, in this instance - to self-determination. I'm quite certain he's misstating international law on this point, but that's pretty much what he would expect from the likes of me.

And yet. The array of techniques Philpot lists - speeding the citizenship process for immigrants, getting out the vote of every Quebecer who'd recently left, massively subsidizing the Oct. 27 "love-in" rally at Place du Canada in Montreal - is widely known. And much of it is indeed hard to square with the Quebec referendum law's spending limits. What's most striking about Philpot's thesis, though, is his fundamental assumption: that other Canadians are so alien to Quebec that they have no right to interfere in Quebec's decision.

Mind you, as Cardinal's book reminds us, right up to the panicky final days, that was also the central assumption of the No campaign. "It was difficult to see, in the configuration of the campaign, what could have been the contribution of people from outside," Jean Charest says in Point de rupture. "It had to be a matter among Quebecers because it concerned Quebecers. If we had given Quebecers the impression that outsiders were trying to direct their choice, I think it would have had the opposite effect." Pierre-Claude Nolin, a senior Tory senator, emerges in Cardinal's book as an enforcer of among-Quebecers-because-it-concerned-Quebecers orthodoxy.

The leader of the No campaign was the province's opposition Liberal leader, Daniel Johnson. It is amazing to watch, in the run-up to the referendum, how diligently he keeps his own tent as small as possible - even as Parizeau is going to extravagant lengths to broaden the sovereignist coalition. Parizeau hires a brilliant journalist, Jean-François Lisée, who warns he will be a Yes man but not a yes-man: "You can expect me to tell you every day that you must broaden the coalition, that you can't win alone." Lisée is as good as his word, and Parizeau is an avid student, inviting other parties, labour unions, artists, women's groups and others into his coalition. It is never easy, but his determination never flags.

Meanwhile, Johnson can't stop whining about all these weirdos who want to help him defend Canada. Anglo-rights types. Non-Quebecers. Jean Chrétien. Ick. "That's the real difficulty for the No leader, to be head of a coalition of people who are all over the non-sovereignist landscape."

In fact, the real difficulty for the No leader was that while he was running the show and keeping out the undesirables, the No blew a 10-point lead on its way to falling seven points behind the Yes. In the last week of the campaign, Chrétien and Tobin and the rest simply ignored Daniel Johnson. During interviews with voters in Montreal before Lucien Bouchard became the Yes campaign front man, I learned that the No camp's official discourse - an endless neo-brutalist harangue from men in suits about the dangers and cost of secession - was already turning voters off. The Bouchard effect wasn't magic. It was the direct result of the No camp's hectoring, approved by Quebecers for Quebecers.

What is more important, both for what followed 1995 and what must come next, is that it is simply unnatural and wrong to pretend a Quebec referendum has nothing to do with the rest of us. At one point, Philpot asks a Toronto interviewee how he'd feel if the United States interfered in an important Canadian referendum. He betrays a chronic weakness of sovereignists, forgetting that they aren't sovereign yet.

Here's a more apt question: how would Robin Philpot or Pierre-Claude Nolin react if the rest of Canada held a referendum campaign on whether to eject Quebec from Confederation - and then told Quebecers they mustn't fuss, because this matter needs to be settled outside Quebec, by non-Quebecers?

So much of what happened during and after the last week of the referendum campaign was driven by the frustration of people who were told the future of their country - the word "Canada" appeared in the referendum question, after all - wasn't their business. Some things were perfectly legitimate, like Jean Chrétien's televised address to the nation. Some were debatable, like the corporate subsidized travel to Montreal for the Oct. 27 rally. And some were contemptible, as Justice Gomery will report. This belief that neighbours cannot talk to neighbours drove too much of the Chrétien unity strategy under a rock, and it turns out that nasty creatures breed under rocks.

Here are three simple principles for next time, then, if there is to be a next time. A "should" and two "musts." First, federalists should appeal to hope and history, not just fear and money. Quebec has accomplished great things in a great country. It is all right to say so.

That's the "should." But the federalist campaign must be out in the open. A simple rule of thumb: federalists must do nothing they wouldn't want to read about on the front page of Le Devoir. And the federalist camp must extend beyond the confines of Quebec. First because the Internet has changed the nature of public discourse. Second because it's right: this is our country too.


Maclean's October 31, 2005