Secession Referendum Redux

The recent Scottish referendum on secession from the United Kingdom sent shivers down my spine. Watching the build-up to referendum day, with the polls showing an increasing likelihood of a “Yes” vote to a “clear question” and Brits of all political persuasions scurrying off to Scotland to threaten pending economic disaster and promise constitutional reform, it was hard not to think back to the similar campaign we experienced in Canada in October 1995.

Ours, however, was not a clear question. The federal government seemed asleep at the wheel and Lucien Bouchard, who had survived flesh-eating disease and emerged a secular saint, was using his flamboyant rhetoric to rally the Québécois to the “Yes” side. When we saw polls telling us that the separatists were going to win the referendum, we sent our children off to Montreal to show our attachment to a Canada that included Quebec. Whatever the actual impact of the pro-Canada rally in Montreal that day, we felt we had to do something to correct the erroneous impression that the ROC (Rest of Canada) did not care.

Then, the following Monday night, we watched the results come in. Unlike those in Scotland, all we saw for the first half of the evening indicated that our Canada “from coast to coast,” which we had taken for granted, was on the verge of breakup. It was only when we heard from Montreal, and the final tallies were done late at night, that we learned the “No” side had squeaked out a victory by a mere 54,288 votes.

Chantal Hébert, writer for the Toronto Star and L’actualité, and member of the C.B.C. The National’s “At Issue” political panel, has joined with Jean Lapierre, radio and television political commentator, former Liberal M.P. and a founding member of the Bloc Québécois, to produce an exposé of our secession referendum experience called The Morning After (Knopf, Canada, 2014). The duo have interviewed all the key players in the Canadian campaign: Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont from “the Yes camp;” Lucienne Robillard, Jean Charest, and Daniel Johnson from “the Quebec No camp;” Sheila Copps, Brian Tobin, Paul Martin, Raymond Chrétien, André Ouellet, Preston Manning and Jean Chrétien from “the Feds,” and “the Premiers:” Roy Romanow, Mike Harris, Frank McKenna and Bob Rae. Of all the big players at the time, only Stephen Harper remains on the scene and declined an interview. 

Their account is as fascinating as it is informative. Breezily written for the average reader, it is full of surprises for those of us who are not in the back rooms of power. What emerges from these interviews is how little people knew about what they were doing. Apart from Parizeau (who knew precisely what he wanted), both sides seem confused, ill-informed, and amazingly naïve about the consequences of a “Yes” victory. Pulled to the precipice, few emerge from the venture as leaders with any particular foresight.

And the questions raised by the whole affair are mind-numbing. What would have been the response of the federal government to a “Yes” victory? What of the Quebec federalists? What of the provincial premiers? What legitimacy would have remained for the Prime Minister and many of his senior cabinet ministers, all elected from Quebec? And if Parizeau had issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, what would have been the response of Lucien Bouchard himself, let alone all the others? To read the book is to shake one’s head at the entire enterprise. 

Written by two well-placed journalists with unparalleled insight into the political scene then and since, the book left me profoundly disturbed. Canada is a stable and prosperous country, with a strong (and always evolving) federal system. But for a few thousand votes, the country could have been thrown into chaos. As Hébert and Lapierre indicate, much of what has followed in Canadian politics since 1995 finds its origins in the 1995 referendum experience. That suggestion needs more analysis, but that is a subject for another book. For the moment, The Morning After warrants our attention. 



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