The (Other) October Crisis

A new book revisits one of Canada’s most traumatic and telling moments

Writing a historical account of Canadian politics is a pretty thankless task. While we need a written account of our political past, no sooner do we come to something resembling a credible conclusion—something we can learn from—than we find ourselves cycling through the same events yet again. As a result, reading political history has become akin to watching reruns, intermittently pausing to ask, “Haven’t I seen this all before?” A tiresome prospect, indeed, for anyone who has ever hoped that an issue had, once and for all, been decided.

Few things illustrate this problem quite so dramatically as the question of Quebec sovereignty. It is a question that has been addressed twice by referendum, and, even when not the subject of direct democratic action, is ceaselessly debated by ardent sovereignists, moderate autonomists, heart-wrenched federalists and the irritable “Fine. Leave!” crowd, driving political commentators to sheer exhaustion. There remain some, however, who are willing to take on the task of reconciling our collective political history, and Canadians should be grateful to them, lest we forget how, with the 2014 provincial election, we returned to a place with respect to Quebec sovereignty where we had, puzzlingly, so recently been.

The Night Canada Stood Still: How the 1995 Quebec Referendum Nearly Cost Us Our Country credibly takes on the task of documenting the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty. It is a thoughtful, detailed account of the actors and plots that unfolded on both the sovereignist and federalist sides, assiduously compiled from secondary sources. The author, historian Robert Wright, self-identifies as an “earnest Upper Canadian,” the good-willed, if hapless, type of rest-of-Canada anglophone that probably infuriates die-hard separatists with good-natured comments about one’s Canada including Quebec, but keeps impressively close to a politically neutral retelling of history.

The book, appropriately for its topic, begins almost at the end, in the week leading up to the 1995 Quebec Referendum. With the Oui side gaining momentum, federalists, virtually in tatters, attempt to bolster support among undecided voters. Flashback to two years prior, and the author carefully reconstructs how the once complacent Jean Chrétien went from brashly deciding that prime ministerial intervention in the sovereignty debate was unnecessary to a state described by the author as “visibly anxious, emotional [and] beaten down,” pleading for soft separatists to realize that a successful referendum would end “a country that is the envy of all the world.” Wright guides the reader through this creeping shift undergone by many prominent federal politicians, from blind optimism to collectively being beside themselves as the Oui side’s polling numbers skyrocketed in the weeks leading up to the vote.

The strengths of the book are obvious: it is a clear, succinct synthesis of insider narratives that have previously only been available through the many (often loquacious) prime ministerial memoirs. It is understandably heavy on media accounts and thankfully curates academic accounts carefully to make them accessible to all readers. Wright also steers clear of the over-used tropes of befuddled Canadians and angry Quebecers, broken constitutional marriages and multiple solitudes, all of which are sounding tired 20 years on—although, in the vein of almost all accounts of Canadian political history, he does trot out one or two requisite, if shop-worn, hockey analogies.

As with any book that peeks into the shadowy backrooms of the political elite, Wright is limited to accounts of political leaders and strategists who were willing to go on the record. Portrayals of the redoubtable Lucien Bouchard and the passionate (if a touch irascible) Premier Jacques Parizeau are fair. Wright sheds light on their complex, combative relationship. One is reminded that they occasionally looked more like frenemies than partners. Wright astutely sums up their fair-weather friendship in his description of a “defiant” Parizeau’s anger toward Bouchard’s seemingly ad hoc change in the vocabulary from “sovereignty” to a European Union–style “economic partnership”—a turning point in the campaign, and a clear signal that while Parizeau clutched his principles, Bouchard had his eye on the prize at all costs.

Even former opposition leader Daniel Johnson, so often unsung in accounts of the referendum, is given his due. Wright paints an unrelenting Johnson, appearing anything but soft in his scathing criticism of the introduction of Bill 1 (An Act Respecting the Future of Québec) in the Quebec Assemblée Nationale. Johnson levels hardballs at his Parti Québécois and Bloc Québécois counterparts, accusing Parizeau and Bouchard of glad-handing the hardcore separatists with talk of an independent nation, but using “confusion and obfuscation” to win over the undecideds with a softer line on the Quebec-Canada partnership.

One of the book’s strengths is in the author’s commitment to providing not only the media account, but legislative action as well. To his credit, Wright’s narration of Hansard-like content is more engaging than one might expect. His description of the rousing debates among Parizeau and Johnson and Bouchard and Chrétien remind the reader that, regardless of sides and outcomes, Canada and Quebec were possessed of passionate, -forward-thinking leaders who debated politics head on and did not shy away from the hard conversations. Of course, we forget that this period in political history was not devoid of political substance, nor was it marked by the catty exchange of preschool-level name-calling so often heard in today’s House of Commons debates. Rather, it was the raucous, character-driven dialogue one recalls from the past (and now yearns for). These insights into the legislative context leave the reader with a richer understanding of just how close Canada was, not necessarily to breaking apart, but to wading into yet another constitutional quagmire.

Wright stays clear of forecasting the future, but quietly draws nice parallels to current-day politics introducing the  familiar cast of contemporary political figures who do cameos throughout the book. Recent Quebec premier Pauline Marois has a walk-on role as the chair of the Quebec Treasury Board in 1995, having the dubious honour of announcing the Oui side’s loss to an arena full of supporters. Former Action Démocratique du Québec party leader Mario Dumont is noted for his youthful ardour (he was only 25 when he was an ADQ member of the Assemblée Nationale during the referendum), and for his astute ability to play neither side but nonetheless come out politically ahead of his rivals. Federalist circles are rife with familiar names. Wright highlights now-NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, playing the role of a spirited MNA for the Quebec Liberal Party 19 years ago, contesting potential vote fraud (an issue, unfortunately, of interest in contemporary politics as well). In the book’s final pages, now-deposed Liberal leader, the ever-loyal and resilient Stéphane Dion also does a walk-on as minister for intergovernmental affairs, charged with drafting the Clarity Act, which would go on to become a legally entrenched blockade to renewed attempts at separation.

One individual who has played a formidable role in the history of the modern PQ occupies a continuous role in the book. Author and political strategist Jean-François Lisée, then advisor to Parizeau, and more recently to Pauline Marois (while occupying the role of minister of international relations, La Francophonie and external trade for the PQ), features prominently. Lisée comes across as one part ardent sovereignist and one part savvy strategist. In the backrooms of the PQ camp, he is portrayed as exhibiting long-term vision for sovereignty and a level-headed reaction to some of the more inflammatory moments of the campaign (not the least being Parizeau’s now infamous “money and ethnic votes” concession speech). Wright recounts Lisée’s disappointment in watching what was intended as a gracious concession speech, marred by the acidity and spite of Parizeau’s comment. It remains to be seen how, as a current PQ member of the Assemblée Nationale, he will carry on the movement now that so many of his colleagues have been shown the door. In March of this year, he somewhat curiously observed on CBC’s Power and Politics that the 1995 referendum outcome was “a tie”—a comment that not only confuses but perhaps also opens the door for a reconsideration of what a 51 percent Oui victory would mean for the sovereignist camp. Would that be considered a tie?

The real strength of the book is that Wright’s account, in general, lays bare the two core challenges to comprehending the complex issue of Quebec sovereignty. The first is simple: understanding the tremendous diversity in pro-sovereignist -sentiment. There was, as Bouchard described it, “broad consensus for a referendum,” but as Wright astutely notes, “no consensus within Quebec on sovereignty itself.” In spite of Wright’s careful documentation of the varied attitudes and opinions toward Quebec sovereignty both within and outside Quebec leading up to the referendum, we still lack a clear understanding of what proportion of Quebecers understand a vote on sovereignty to be a vote simply for a stronger line against the federal government or for some modest change from the status quo. What proportion is tired of the grand passion, the questions of identity and nationalism? Soft separatism, it appears, works well among voters; the Quebec electorate seems happiest when people have someone they know is capable of taking a hard line, without actually following through on all its threats—Mario Dumont’s short-lived success with the ADQ was the embodiment of this feeling.

The second challenge is the nuts and bolts of a separation agreement. This book highlights one of the key problems in having a mature discussion about carving out one country from another. It remains a political impossibility for those in elected office. Yet it would, theoretically, be interesting and useful for both sides, and more importantly all the people in the middle, to run the scenario through as a thought experiment: if a sovereign Quebec was actually realized, what would it look like? It is one thing to make broad conjectures about sharing currency and passports, or renaming NHL teams. It is quite another to look 8.1 million people in the eye and assure them that “This will objectively be better for you on a day-to-day basis. Your children’s future prospects will be as secure as they were before. The produce delivered to your grocery store will be of the same quality. Here is how that will be possible in an independent Quebec.” It is not about making silly statements about whether Quebecers will still be able to visit the Rockies. Of course they will—nobody’s getting quotes to build barricades in Cornwall.

But of course, economists and policy wonks have done these sorts of studies from a variety of perspectives, and as Jeffrey Simpson pointed out in February this year, bookshelves would fail under the weight of them. The trouble is that when politicians are the messengers, facts are often treated as inconveniences, waived off when they do not fit into the broader narrative. That does not mean we stop attempting the discussion though. On the contrary, it means we collectively stop treating the desire for sovereignty as a nuisance to be ignored, and start engaging with the concerns presented by the sovereignty movement (and indeed, by other groups in Canada who have even less of a voice in public debate). To be clear, I do not advocate gold-plating a path to independence, but I do suggest that a respectful and thoughtful exchange on the realities of monetary policy (already observed to be a possibly insurmountable challenge in a potential currency union), infrastructure and the rights of aboriginal peoples (who have judicially enforceable claims to much of northern Quebec) is as necessary as a dialogue on respecting and increasing the use of the French language, and acknowledging that reconciling differing policy priorities across provinces through the federal arrangement requires re–examining our notions of fairness. It is a sober conversation that benefits Canada’s long-term stability. Flag waving in downtown Montreal only works once.

Finally, the elephant in the room has to be addressed: the Chartre de la laïcité, an issue that Wright clearly could not take on in the book, but that deserves some sort of epilogue in future editions. Wright ends with Parizeau’s resignation on account of the referendum loss, but probably more so because of the aforementioned controversial “money and ethnic votes” statement that has been interpreted as pitting pure laine Québécois against newcomers (even those who have been here for generations). To his credit, Wright stays away from trying to paint the PQ as the talisman for everything from sovereignty to left-wing statism to xenophobia. Of course it is not, although their messaging could stand to be dramatically improved. It is not clear that the PQ will continue to get mileage out of the potentially explosive language of nous—a warm and inclusive term, except when you find you are part of les autres.

What the book can do, given the time period it discusses, is highlight the great friction in the Quebec mystique. This is a global society forging strong international links, yet it also seeks to isolate itself. It is remarkably progressive but unclear how to deal with cultural diversity. Nowhere have these tensions been sharper than in the embodiment of the PQ, an organization that is now tasked with having to make itself relevant again. But, unlike 2003 when the PQ last lost power to the Liberals, this task of rebuilding relevance is going to have to come with a clear refusal to engage with noxious political instincts like inciting fear of the other. Hopefully, in the short term, the PQ’s primary goal will be to rebuild itself into a formidable opposition party that keeps the Liberals on course to economic renewal. A strong Quebec benefits all Canadians.

I am cautiously optimistic. Quebec is a society that repeatedly shows itself to be engaged in determining political outcomes, whether it is, as Wright narrates, a divisive referendum on sovereignty, or opposition to increasing university tuition. But, as the author, and anyone else who has lived through a Quebec provincial election would readily note, in words so often used in this context that they seem rehearsed, stale and occasionally cliché, plus ça change.