What Might Have Been

Veteran observers go behind the scenes of the second referendum

For Canadians of a certain age—and Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre, authors of The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was, are both grandparents—Quebec nationalism was the defining political issue of our generation. It burst upon us with the death of Duplessis in 1959. Soon we were transfixed by the Quiet Revolution and the existential question: Quebec—in or out of Canada? This question preoccupied Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau throughout his 15 years as Liberal leader, while in Quebec the Parti Québécois emerged, took office, lost one referendum but won the following election, and then failed to stop the 1982 patriation of the -constitution.

Myths about Quebec’s exclusion from patriation set the stage for Brian Mulroney’s capturing Quebec as he swept the country in 1984. But Mulroney made the fateful promise to “bring Quebec into the constitution,” then failed to deliver. His old friend Lucien Bouchard quit his cabinet and founded the Bloc Québécois, while western discontent over the Conservatives’ perceived favouritism toward Quebec permitted the rise of the Reform Party, setting the stage for the obliteration of the Tories in 1993.

For more than 30 years, Quebec’s status was central to our political drama, and, as Hébert and Lapierre write, “few nights in Canadian history were more exciting than the night of October 30, 1995,” when the no side won the second Quebec referendum by a razor-thin 50.58 percent. Looking back, I find it hard to imagine the emotion and angst of those years. Our politics have become so dull, so normal. The late Jim Flaherty thought this just fine when he slightly misquoted former Ontario premier Bill Davis: “Boring is good.” Well perhaps, but it is small wonder that the Toronto Star’s Hébert, consigned to report on the boring as an Ottawa correspondent, should pine for more thrilling times.

The book she has crafted with Lapierre (a Liberal and then a BQ member of Parliament before settling on the federal side of the fence) is a clever blend of actual and counterfactual history. They asked 18 key sovereignist and federalist players what they thought in 1995 would happen should Quebecers vote yes. The picture that emerges is one of dots that do not connect, of strategic negligence and hubris, of wishful thinking and naiveté.

Jacques Parizeau, then premier of Quebec, stands out as the most serious strategist, but also for his hubris. His objective was to move quickly to independence, agreed with the Rest of Canada if possible, but through a unilateral declaration of independence if necessary. He had plans to deal with the fiscal fallout, for fanning out internationally and for enlarging his coalition after the yes. He had reluctantly agreed to offer negotiations on a partnership, but assumed they would quickly fail. In this, he was setting up a potential conflict with his two allies, BQ leader Bouchard and Mario Dumont, leader of the Alliance Démocratique du Québec. For these two “soft sovereignists,” negotiations and a new partnership were the priority. Astonishingly, the three had never discussed the day after a yes and it was clear Parizeau would have tried to marginalize Bouchard and Dumont, while they would have tried to restrain Parizeau.

The federalist camp was even more divided. The strongest outlier was Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party, who had indicated to the Parizeau camp that he anticipated negotiations on separation even after a narrow yes. He believed the Liberal government would have to call a national election (in Quebec too?) “whose sole purpose [would be] to elect a government that represents the rest of the country.” No other federalists were ready to throw in the towel in this way in that none believed that a narrow yes would represent a decisive result. However, federalists were divided on the question of negotiations. Quebec Liberal leader Daniel Johnson, federal Tory leader Jean Charest, and Lucienne Robillard, the federal Quebec minister assigned to the no campaign, all thought a yes would require a major effort to reform federalism, but they also worried that ROC would lose patience and might end up saying “let them go.” This was Manning’s reading, too, and Parizeau’s hope.

Among the premiers, Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow was a potential rogue player in that he had a secret task force developing scenarios that seemed focused on defining a Canada without Quebec. The others were more cautious. Alberta’s Ralph Klein saw Romanow’s musings as “bordering on treason” and refused to discuss them. Mike Harris, newly elected in Ontario, indicated that he would probably have emphasized the lack of clarity in the result and argued “Canada is not going anywhere.” A break-up was even more unimaginable for Frank McKenna in New Brunswick, who assumed the “Maritimes would be screwed,” so he would have played for time.

A yes would have been a major defeat for Jean Chrétien and inevitably his leadership would have been weakened. Brian Tobin, who pulled together a group of ROC ministers to consider scenarios, thought a yes would necessarily marginalize Quebec ministers and require a major restructuring of Cabinet. While he doubted the prime minister would quit immediately, Tobin clearly thought Chrétien’s position could become untenable, especially should there be negotiations on separation.

Chrétien revealed little to the authors about how he would have dealt with a yes. The most concrete indication is McKenna’s revelation that Chrétien had asked whether he would be prepared to serve in a national unity government (and McKenna said yes). But the prime minister had no thought of an early election or of resigning because “quitting is not in my nature.”

These are fascinating might-have-beens, but Hébert and Lapierre could have gone further in analyzing which counterfactuals made sense or were more probable.

For example, would there have been negotiations? Parizeau would not contemplate negotiating anything less than separation, while key federalist leaders were not going there. They would have argued lack of clarity and played for time. The “soft” sovereignists’ and federalists’ hopes for negotiations on some sort of new association seem especially naive. While there might have been a tactical game with each side setting conditions for negotiations that the other would find unacceptable, it is hard to see them actually getting to the table without a major game changer.

This is critical, because Chrétien would have had to stay away from negotiations to maintain his leadership. If anything, the authors and their respondents understate the momentous nature of entering negotiations. In hardball negotiations with a Quebec government hoping to secede, the government of Canada would inevitably be cast as the negotiator for ROC, trying to get the best deal in a break-up or to set such terms (such as on the rights of the Cree and Inuit to secede from Quebec) as to make secession unattractive to Quebec. Negotiating on behalf of ROC while still claiming to represent all Canadians would be a tough balancing act for any federal government. For a prime minister from Quebec, it would be impossible.

Even a very strong yes might not have made negotiations inevitable. Parizeau was banking on a bandwagon effect in Quebec while ROC would see no alternative to secession. But while a referendum is a dramatic expression of public opinion at a point in time, opinions can change quickly so that following a strong yes the federal government would have tracked polls. If Quebecers were cooling on independence (as they well might as difficulties arose), there could have been a federal referendum in Quebec (there was a draft law ready, which had died on the order paper in 1979) or a snap general election.

Only if the situation looked irretrievable, would the federal government likely have gone through the agony of being restructured with a new leader to negotiate secession. But even here, secession would not have been inevitable. Federal hawks were keen to set very hard terms as the price of secession, including the possible partition of Quebec and a tough sharing of assets and debt. Some might even have insisted that constitutionally secession would require the unanimous consent of the provinces (because, of all things, it would change the office of lieutenant governor). That would have opened the way for individual provinces, such as Newfoundland, to make their own demands.

Such messy scenarios were more likely than a clean and friendly divorce. But imagine that Parizeau after tough negotiations decided to accept unfavourable terms. Bouchard, to his credit, believed strongly that a second referendum would need to ratify the terms of secession. The democratic case for this is clear and the federal government might then insist on it—especially if polls indicated Quebecers might oppose the deal. Of course, if independence fell at this hurdle, putting Humpty Dumpty together after such a traumatic break in Canadian solidarity would not be easy.

Finally, Parizeau always claimed he could proceed to a unilateral declaration of independence. But could that have worked? Internationally, even France would think hard about recognizing an independent Quebec when Canada had not sanctioned it. The international community is deeply allergic to such declarations, as we can see with Kosovo, which despite an overwhelming moral and practical case has still not been admitted to the United Nations—or been recognized by many governments—six years after declaring independence. On the ground in Canada, it is also hard to imagine a unilateral declaration of independence leading to an orderly transfer of power from the federal to the Quebec government. Success would require massive public support in refusing to pay federal taxes, for the military and civil servants to defect, and so on. This would be an invitation to unparalleled confusion and civil disorder. So was a unilateral declaration of independence Parizeau’s great bluff—or his ultimate delusion?

As it happened, on October 31, 1995, Canada could contemplate “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” to quote the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo. For the federal government, the narrow no vote was a technical victory but a political shock. Chrétien parachuted Stéphane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew into Cabinet and made modest concessions to nationalist sentiment in Quebec (the Calgary Accord recognizing “the unique character of Quebec society”; a parliamentary resolution effectively extending Quebec’s constitutional veto powers; the transfer of some worker training programs). More controversially, it moved to the “tough love” strategy of the secession reference to the Supreme Court and then the Clarity Act, which tries to ensure that any future referendum question be clear and a “clear majority” be required for negotiations. Hébert and Lapierre seem to recognize the legitimacy of such thinking in their afterword (“Size Matters”), but cannot bring themselves to endorse the clarity initiatives.

As for the consequences of the 1995 referendum, the authors muse that “the sovereignist movement [may have] only exchanged the gift of a swift death for a slow and agonizing one.” And in their final sentence, they conclude that their book does not have a happy ending. For many, no doubt, but one can imagine much worse.

Certainly, the excitement of such existential politics, if that is what it is, is now elsewhere. There are separatist insurrections around the world (including some resolved through agreement, as in Indonesia and the Philippines, and other suppressed by brute force, as in Sri Lanka). But the cases most analogous to Canada are in two other “mature democracies”: the United Kingdom and Spain.

Scotland has never had the same centrality in British politics that Quebec has had in Canada. The approach of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to the Scottish referendum displayed inattention and complacency, and more tactics than principled strategy. The complacency was replaced by panic in the dying days of the campaign as the yes moved into a lead, so the three unionist party leaders at Westminster quickly huddled and came up with a dramatic “vow” that promised “faster, safer and better change than separation” if Scots voted no.

This may have helped persuade Scots to vote 55 percent no. But the “vow” has come back to bite the unionist leaders, who had little shared view on its content or how to deliver on it. At this point, it is the scenarios following a Scottish no that are proving so difficult in the UK—in contrast to the post-yes scenarios for Canada discussed above—and the Scottish vote has opened the Pandora’s box of much broader constitutional reform in the United Kingdom. Cameron’s backbenchers are pushing for “English votes on English laws,” which would pose major constitutional difficulties, while Labour wants a constitutional convention and the Liberal Democrats want federalism.

A hastily formed commission has been charged with finding enough consensus on the Scottish issue to permit legislation to be tabled in January. It is fanciful to imagine this passing before the spring election, not least because any changes require the Scottish parliament’s consent. The Scottish Nationalist Party is milking this confusion and polls suggest it might virtually eradicate Labour’s large Scottish delegation of members of Parliament in Westminster next May and then win the Scottish election in 2016. There is already talk of another referendum, especially if the Conservatives win the UK election and move to leave the European Union.

The situation is not much tidier in Spain. Constitutionally, the autonomous communities cannot hold referendums on independence, and the conservative prime minister in Madrid, Mariano Rajoy, successfully fought the Catalan government’s attempts to do so, while doing nothing to meet its complaints about paying too much to the rest of the country. The Catalan government resorted to an unofficial straw poll, which voted strongly for independence, but on a low turnout. Catalan nationalism is strong and frustrated, and a hardline independence party is likely to win provincial elections next year. At the national level, politics may be profoundly disrupted in 2016 by the emergence of the new, very leftist, Podemos party.

While each of these stories is unique, it is striking that liberal democracies have such different views on the legitimacy of secession. Some refuse it outright, while those that accept its possible legitimacy have trouble deciding the rules that should govern it. Canada has produced a major judgement of the Supreme Court on this as well as a whole school of political theory, both of which are widely read around the world. But our success in holding the country together while not ruling out secession has had a large element of luck. There is certainly room for a principled objection to making secession a simple matter of a narrow win in a referendum.