‘Yes' vote could have meant sovereigntist chaos

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More than two million Quebecers voted yes in the 1995 referendum. The vast majority wanted the province to become an independent country.

But the sovereigntist camp would not have flirted with victory if it had not been for the support of a cohort of soft nationalist voters.

Part of that group was made up of people who were essentially out to signal their anger over Canada's failure to effect the constitutional change that successive Quebec governments had sought. They wanted to send a message of discontent about the state of federalism, but ultimately had little tolerance for the risk of separation.

Many of those risk-averse "yes" supporters changed their minds after polls showed that the sovereigntist camp had the wind in its sails. The prospect of a decisive "yes" victory spooked them into returning to the federalist fold.

Jean Chrétien's promise of constitutional change convinced them that their mission had been accomplished and their message received.

Some also assumed that the thousands of Canadians who travelled to Montreal for a federalist love-in at the tail end of the campaign were going to hold the country's political leadership accountable for keeping its word to Quebecers after a "no" vote.

But others stuck with the "yes" camp even if Quebec independence was not their Plan A. They were primarily drawn to the different Quebec/Canada partnership that had pride of place in the referendum window.

Some of them remembered Pierre Trudeau's referendum promise of constitutional change in 1980 and the subsequent patriation of the Constitution without Quebec's formal approval.

Based on that experience, many did not believe that if the "no" side won, the 1995 promises of the federalist camp would amount to anything.

In theory, those voters were willing to take the risk of separation; in practice, many believed it would never come to that.

After the referendum, polls showed a significant number of "yes" supporters did not think that a sovereigntist victory would have set Quebec on the course of independence.

The ambivalence as to the meaning of the "yes" vote went all the way to the top of the sovereigntist camp.

As it turns out there was little more agreement between Premier Jacques Parizeau, Bloc Québecois Leader Lucien Bouchard and Action Democratique leader Mario Dumont as to whether yes meant yes as between some of their supporters.

When political commentator Jean Lapierre and I set out two years ago to write a book about what the lay of the land could have been like after a 1995 "yes" vote, we began by talking to the formidable politician who had been the central figure of the referendum episode.

When Bouchard sat down with us in July 2012 to talk us through the thinking in the "yes" camp as it prepared for an expected referendum victory, the picture he painted was a disconcerting one.

Where we imagined co-operation and consultation between the three leaders, we were presented with broken-down communications and behind-the-scenes machinations to take control of the post-"yes" agenda.

With only hours to go before the votes were counted, there was anything but a consensus between the premier and his two allies as to the interpretation to give to the close victory that their strategists forecast.

For Bouchard, a "yes" meant maybe. In his best-case scenario there would have been a second referendum to validate the outcome of his partnership negotiations with the rest of Canada. When asked what he expected to result from those talks, he would not go further than to say that it would have been better than the Quebec/Canada status quo.

For Dumont, "yes" meant "no." He believed a narrow "yes" vote would be followed by constitutional manoeuvres that would have seen Quebec remain in a renewed federation.

As for Parizeau, he was ready to set course on his oft-stated goal of independence and determined not to let his partners get in the way.

In October 1995, the sovereigntist side was not alone in having different interpretations as to the meaning of a "yes" victory. The federalist camp was equally riddled with them.

But back then few imagined that a close sovereigntist victory could have quickly brought the winning "yes" side to the brink of implosion.

 

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

 

Organizations: Bloc Québecois

Geographic location: Quebec, Canada, Montreal

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