New book and Scottish separatism resurrects the ghosts of the 1995 Quebec Referendum

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Canadian politics, it’s that you never question Chantal Hébert’s knowledge, especially when it comes to Québec politics.

That’s why I was so excited to hear the super-pundit’s announcement that she had co-written a history book with Jean Lapierre on the topic of what might have happened in the event of a Yes vote back in 1995 when the separatist coalition (consisting of the triumvirate of Mario Dumont, Lucien Bouchard and, of course, that jovial old soul, Jacque Parizeau) lost by the narrowest margin imaginable.  The book, entitled The Morning After (I rather like the implication that the last referendum was the equivalent of a bad night out resulting in a massive hangover the next day!) will be on store shelves next September, and you better believe I’m pre-ordering my copy.

The 1995 Referendum was something of a wake-up call, politically speaking, for my generation of Quebeckers and galvanized many on both sides (the first political event I ever attended was the Unity Rally held by the NO camp in downtown Montreal) of the debate to get engaged politically in what seemed like nothing less than a matter of life and death to many of us at the time.

Among other things, the book apparently claims that Bouchard unwittingly got conned into leading the campaign for independence after he was promised by then Premier Jacques Parizeau that Quebec would give the Canadian government a chance to respond to its demands for greater autonomy, if the outcome of the referendum was favourable to renegotiating the federation.  Bouchard has since back-pedaled somewhat, accusing Hébert of misrepresenting his views.  The trouble is, Parizeau has since admitted that he had intended to unilaterally declare independence before the Feds had a chance to accommodate Quebec and would have essentially sabotaged any attempt at reconciliation with the rest of the country.

Particularly problematic was the phrasing of the Referendum question.  In the end, the government (led by the Parti Québecois) opted for an exercise in constitutional confusion that implied that they were looking for a mandate to negotiate a new deal for Quebec within Canada rather than independence.  The question somehow managed to obscure ultimate purpose of the whole plebiscite by offering voters both an option for renewed federalism and another for sovereignty, while at the same time referencing both a 1995 law and agreement that the vast majority of the general public had naturally never read.

Though the Clarity Act introduce in 1998 attempted to put to rest the ambiguity of the necessary conditions for a legal succession from Canada, to my mind the question of what would constitute a clear question and clear majority has never been fully settled by the Feds nor, for that matter, by the Supreme Court of Canada.  All the Act achieved was to insist that Ottawa would have to be satisfied that both of these condition were met in order for it to engage in any negotiations with Quebec’s provincial government over independence.

The reason for this imprecise language boiled down to an inescapable fact of life for separatists ever since the first referendum in 1980: people in Quebec consistently and overwhelmingly reject the idea of outright separation from Canada.  That Bouchard would be duped by Parizeau and the other hardliners in the PQ reveals a shocking naivité on his part as well as Mario Dumont.

Evidently, former Minister of Democratic Institutions and Active Citizenship (the man behind this forced attempt at integration of religious minorities) Bernard Drainville hasn’t figured that out yet.  Recently he returned from a trip to Scotland where he was studying the independence campaign for clues as to how he might reach the Holy Grail as a future leader of the PQ.  Bernie is now of the opinion that a clear question such as the one being used by the Scottish National Party (it simply asks “Should Scotland be an independent Country?”) could be used in any future Quebec referendum.

An inconvenient fact for both Drainville and Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland’s Parliament, is that when a direct question is put to the voters on either Scottish or Quebec succession, the polls show that the majority of them turn the offer down.  So the Separatists forces on this side of the Atlantic are left with a rather impossible dilemma: make their intentions clear from the word go in any pitch to voters and almost certainly lose or put some water in their constitutional wine (to paraphrase a popular Quebecois saying) and ask for some sort of new pact with the rest of the country, possibly succeeding but in the process, renouncing the dream of one day forming a Republic of Quebec.

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