When Mark Carney, head of the Bank of England, opined on the September 2014 independence referendum in Scotland by saying, “A currency union is incompatible with sovereignty,” he might well have been reiterating the position held by his former employer, the Bank of Canada, during the 1995 Quebec referendum. In fact, the Scottish referendum had many echoes of its Canadian counterpart.
Two books, both published in the fall of 2014, provide vivid reminders of our recent history. Since no statute of limitations expired to cause this dual assessment of a 20-year-old event, what could possibly account for their appearance within weeks of each other? Some speculate that another referendum was being considered, motivating the authors to remind us all of the story that came before. Others disagree, saying support for separatism is clearly at an all time low.
Author Chantel Hébert’s position is that only now, 20 years later – with the prospect of Quebec sovereignty put “on indefinite hold” as the election of April 2014 ousted the Parti Québécois after only eighteen months, giving the Liberals a majority government – only now can the actual experience of the day of the referendum be reflected upon without those reflections also being interpreted as setting the stage for a new battle at the ballot box.
Save for one, Hébert’s collection of interviews conducted in 2012 are all with elected officials (from both sides of the issue), being asked specifically how they planned for a federalist defeat. The result is a straight-talkin’ and fast-paced account of personal experiences, just what we have come to expect of this veteran journalist (and member of the Order of Canada). Now and again, her stringing together of metaphors borders on the hilarious: on a single page it’s not “on the radar” that things won’t “turn up roses” because we have a government that isn’t apt at “walking and chewing gum at the same time” and has a small team of advisors “dropping a few balls” while everyone is “slaying a sovereignist dragon.” One of my other favourite colourful Hébert comments is about Preston Manning, criticizing Jean Chrétien after the referendum had been won: “It is a rare family that welcomes the services of a zealous undertaker after a loved one has come out of intensive care and is undergoing a fragile recovery.” The book’s subject is serious but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun to read.
Robert Wright, professor of history at Trent University’s Oshawa, Ontario, campus, also relies heavily on personal accounts of the event, but from myriad public documents, media accounts and published books, many authored by the key players themselves. The Night Canada Stood Still is much more of an historical tome, with less recent commentary and much fascinating detail. In a way, he sets the dramatic scene, teasing out a fascinating narrative, while Hébert provides the character notes and intense human emotion that brings them further to life. Taken together, the two books, far from repeating each other, only add more nuance and rich detail. The Night Canada Stood Still no doubt took much longer to write than The Morning After, pointing to no other connection than coincidence that they came out together – and were titled in an amusingly compatible way. What they both remind us of is that this critical time in Canadian history is worthy of ongoing attention.
The story of the Quebec referendum also provides some explanation for the Canada we have today, a Canada in which leaders seem more divorced from the populations that elected them, bent instead on personal power – at almost any cost, even if the cost is the very survival of the country they are charged to lead. The intensity of feeling on both sides of the referendum issue seems to have created a culture of personal ambition, one so strong that it takes precedence over listening to the people.
On October 31, 1995, Quebecers went to the polls to answer the following question, stated in both French and English: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
The result was shockingly close to a tie: 50.58 voted No while 49.42 voted Yes with an unprecedented turnout of almost 94% of eligible voters. Fewer than 55,000 votes separated the sides out of almost 5 million voters.
Hébert makes the case that 1995 was the culmination of a twenty-year constitutional war that consumed the energies of successive prime ministers from Quebec. This “war” is described in history books in varying ways across the nation and its important signposts can be summarised as follows:
- It had always rankled Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Canadians needed Britain’s approval to make changes to their constitution, owing to the fact that it had been a statute of the British Parliament – the British North America Act – that had formed Canada in 1867. Starting in the late 1970s, he proposed “bringing the constitution home”– repatriating it – and adding a charter of rights and freedoms that would protect citizens against arbitrary actions by their governments. Repatriation had broad popular support, including in Quebec where any involvement from Britain was resented. That it became so contentious is, according to most commentators, due to the premiers, especially Lévesque, seeing it as a bargaining tool to get more power for their provinces.
- In late 1981, in an event that both authors refer to only in passing, but that had long-lasting implications for relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada, all but one premier finally voted in favour of repatriation. Most of them had opposed it for years, fearing it would transfer power from elected politicians to non-elected judges. Over the course of one eventful night, involving all premiers except Quebec’s René Lévesque who was not informed of the discussions, a deal was hammered out. Lévesque felt betrayed, a very moving scene that John English powerfully describes in the award-winning volume two of his biography of Trudeau, Just Watch Me. English quotes Levesque’s wife, Corrine Côté: “He had never been so cheated, and in a way that was thoroughly Machiavellian. He was broken. I believe that Réne died for the first time after the night of the long knives.”
- “The night of the long knives,” evokes strong emotion. It’s the name given to Hitler’s 1934 purge of those he felt threatened his position, establishing Hitler, as he put it, as "the supreme judge of the German people.” The narrative of supreme betrayal has had staying power in Quebec, but for a surprising reason.
- During Brian Mulroney’s time as Prime Minister, Robert Bourassa became premier of Quebec (for a second time; in 1985) and relations between the two governments improved. Bourassa gave five key "demands" for Quebec to "sign on" to the constitution. And Quebec’s participation was important: in protest of the constitution being brought home without Quebec’s consent, Quebec premiers (PQ and Liberal) abstained from voting in subsequent key proposals, such as those expanding the rights of First Nations, Métis and the Inuit. Because the new amending formula required the agreement of at least seven premiers representing fifty per cent of Canada’s population, Quebec’s absence meant an ongoing inability to make change – and ever-increasing tensions between Quebec and other provinces.
- Bourassa’s five key demands made up the “Meech Lake Accord,” the outcome of a 1987 gathering of the prime minister and premiers at Meech Lake in the Gatineau Hills, and an attempt to normalize Quebec’s participation in the constitutional process. Unlike the repatriation effort in 1981, the Meech Lake Accord had very little public support. Hébert calls it “Canada’s most divisive constitutional failure.” But Mulroney, trying to sell it, with its “distinct society” clause for Quebec, revived the narrative of the “night of the long knives.” Ignoring the broad popular support of the time, Mulroney denounced Trudeau’s repatriation efforts as “a collective trauma” for the people of Quebec, one that had “isolated and humiliated” the province, a major error, the worst injustice, not worth the paper it was written on. As Ron Graham in his 2011 book The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada, put it, “By vilifying what had happened in November, 1981 ... Brian Mulroney and Robert Bourassa opened a Pandora's box. Out of it flew the creation of the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa, the election of a hard-line Parti Québécois government in Quebec, and the narrowly defeated referendum in 1995.”
- After the failure of Meech (Manitoba and Newfoundland leaders did not accept it), Mario Dumont, one of Hébert’s leading characters, took a forceful role in preparing a strongly autonomist position paper, headed by Jean Allaire, then an influential member of the Quebec Liberals – the Allaire report. Dumont, in his early twenties at the time, favoured a reformed federalism rather than outright sovereignty. The report proposed that twenty-two powers would devolve from the federal government to the provinces (and the abolishment of the Senate), leaving Canada to oversee only defence, customs, currency, equalization and the management of the federal debt. This became Quebec Liberal policy in 1991 (modified to a reform, not abolishment, of the Senate). The same month, Jean Campeau and Michel Bélanger (two businessmen with opposite leanings on Quebec sovereignty) handed in the conclusions of province-wide consultations on the constitutional way forward. The report said that failing a favourable constitutional offer from the rest of Canada, Bourassa was to have a referendum on sovereignty in Quebec by fall of 1992.
- Before the 1992 deadline arrived, Bourassa jettisoned the Allaire Report’s prescription for a massive devolution of federal powers to Quebec and decided to submit a new constitutional proposal. Joe Clark (then federal minister of intergovernmental affairs) and the other premiers had spent the better part of eighteen months trying to hammer out a substitute accord to replace Meech. Bourassa joined in late but signed off on the deal in Charlottetown in the late summer of 1992. Unlike the Meech Accord, this one provided for a referendum across Canada (two actually; Quebec held its own). It failed (Quebec 56.6% against; National 55% against): the majority of Canada's population voted against an agreement endorsed by every first minister and most other political groups, including First Nations and business women’s groups. (Significantly, Pierre Trudeau spoke out vehemently against it.)
- This stinging rebuke against the "political class" in Canada was a preview of things to come. Having inflamed Quebecers and polarized the country, Mulroney had expended nearly all of his political capital trying to get the Charlottetown Accord passed. He resigned in June 1993. In the federal election on October 25, 1993, a year less a day after the Charlottetown referendum, the Progressive Conservatives under his successor, Kim Campbell, were reduced to two seats (Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne: Charest has the distinction of being the only francophone leader the PC party has ever had) in the worst defeat of a sitting government at the federal level. They were replaced in most Western ridings by the Reform Party and in Quebec by the Bloc Québécois, the parties who had opposed the Accord. The NDP was also decimated, winning just nine seats, partly due to its pro-Charlottetown stance. Many voters in the NDP's western heartland were angered by the NDP abandoning its previously staunchly federalist position, and turned to Reform as the new voice of western discontent. The Liberals, despite their support for the accord, had a new leader in Jean Chrétien, and won a large majority in the new Parliament due to their near-sweep of Ontario. There, only a minority of the voters who had opposed the Charlottetown Accord were willing to vote for the Reform Party.
This is the backdrop to the 1995 referendum events. The population is full of resentment of a “political class” that pursues its own agendas and gets further and further from democratic ideals. As Clyde Wells said, reflecting the view of many Canadians, “We must never again implement this process for Constitutional reform. It is impossible for the eleven first ministers to do justice to the matters they have to consider, and it is grossly unfair to the 26 million people of this nation to have their first minister closeted and making decisions in a secret way without letting them know what was at stake, and the basis of the decisions were made.” At the same time, a Prime Minister is elected who has observed the aftermath of the constitutional negotiations of the previous decades. Is it this experience of the pitfalls of opening constitutional debate that makes Chrétien seem so absent from the drama?
So where was Chrétien? He gave every appearance of being engaged in prime ministerial duties that didn’t involve constitutional talks and certainly not discussions of separatism. When forced to engage with the debate, he played what Robert Wright calls his “master stroke.” Chrétien repeatedly asserted, “I have no mandate. ... I have been elected to protect the whole of Canada and I am the prime minister of all Canadians, including all those who live in Quebec. And I will fight for Canada.” He was also forthright in pointing out that it was not up to Quebec to decide certain things, that on the topics of citizenship, the currency and interest rates, “the Government of Canada will decide.”
It seems a bit surreal that the prime minister, his top ministers and most of the provincial premiers were not busy hammering out a strategy to deal with what had become an existential crisis for the country. But in reading about the Scottish referendum of 2014, it seems similar thinking was at work there. Watching the media coverage from afar, I read many times that to mount a concerted public attack, was paramount to acknowledging that a crisis was imminent, while carrying on as if normal was key to showing confidence in the No side.
One unintended consequence of Ottawa’s failure to focus on the pending Quebec referendum was Finance Minister, Paul Martin’s “hell or high water” budget. In discussion with Hébert, Martin says the referendum “was not on the radar.” Instead they were focused on the Mexican peso crisis and looming financial disturbances in Asia. Hébert suggests the budget may have been the most “positive collateral consequence of Ottawa’s indifference.” And Robert Wright makes the case that Martin’s budget took the steam out of Jacques Parizeau’s argument that Quebec should detach itself from an insolvent Canada. Wright calls this one of the sovereignists’ “most powerful economic arguments.”
There is much analysis to suggest that while the budget was certainly a big and bold action that gained Martin, and Canada, kudos at the time, it also added fuel to a growing movement to let the markets do the work of government, something that looks quite different now as governments have become weak, giving up their regulatory roles, and therefore their ability to protect citizens against massive corporate power. A 2004 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives book, Hell and High Water, an assessment of Paul Martin’s record, describes the case for small government that was already being promoted by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve: “by scaling back the role of the state, we can make more room for the market to do what it’s ostensibly good at – making money. Less government leads to more market, which leads to more money, which leads to more prosperity and, ostensibly, reduced poverty. The moral underpinning is that this circuit leads to more prosperity for all, at least in theory. Who could be against that?”
In announcing his budget, Martin said, “[O]ver the next three fiscal years, this budget will deliver cumulative savings of $29 billion, of which $25.3 billion are expenditure cuts. This is by far the largest set of actions in any Canadian budget since demobilization
after the Second World War… Relative to the size of our economy, program spending will be lower in 1996-97 than at any time since 1951.” But in 1951 Canada didn’t have medicare or a comprehensive system of support for seniors. Neither did it have deep unemployment to contend with. While these hard-won social programs were being cut or privatised, Martin’s budget was also downloading responsibilities to provincial and municipal governments. The overall effect was to create disparity among regions of the country and to starve the growing urban areas. And Martin was determined that his changes to the way budgets were done would be lasting: “... the essence of good government is, in fact, permanent ongoing program review. And that is our intention...If government doesn’t need to run something, it shouldn’t. And in the future, it won’t.” One wonders what he thinks today when he sees that the Harper government has taken his lesson to heart and now runs the smallest government ever.
But whether you follow the lines of history alluded to by the two books, or find their analysis thorough enough, is your choice. Most engaging about the writing of both authors are the personal stories of deep emotion. Probably the prize on this front goes to Jacques Parizeau, with both authors providing compelling and often shocking evidence of his determination. He’s a true believer, a term coined by Eric Hoffer to denote the fanaticism that underpins all mass movements. Parizeau drove wedges between groups inside Quebec, if it suited his purpose, was accused of insulting corporate leaders, aboriginals and anyone who got in the way of his plans for separation, as soon as possible. The depths of his feelings are remembered in what has come to be called his "money and ethnic votes" speech, turning his fury on these two groups in his remarks given immediately after the verdict of the referendum was announced.
For Parizeau, the referendum loss was the most painful. But the accounts by both authors, with all their attention to emotion, nuance and factual detail, fails to engender the kind of sympathy one feels for Levesque suffering a similar failure as described in English’s biography of Trudeau. The character of the two men – Parizeau vs Levesque – makes all the difference. Both were dedicated to separatism but Levesque, fighting a similar battle in 1980, foresaw a sovereignty-association and had a quite different relationship with his constituents, and even his adversaries. As one journalist, Don MacPherson, said of him, “They liked him. They didn’t just respect him or admire him. They liked him.”
Parizeau, however, comes across as nasty, appearing to make use of those he represented, or discarding them, if it suited. Wright recounts Parizeau’s response to a Los Angeles Times reporter who asked him how he would achieve a majority vote for sovereignty: “Get me a half-dozen Ontarians who put their feet to the Quebec flag, and I’ve got it.” Parizeau is alluding to an incident that took place in Brockville, Ontario, during the Meech Lake campaign in which a small group of protestors destroyed the Quebec flag after the Canadian flag had been burnt in protests in Quebec. The idea of deliberately provoking nasty situations deepened suspicions and darkened the tone of the campaign. And while the No side worried about Parizeau’s moving Bouchard into the leader of the Yes campaign, Parizeau was actually treating him as a pawn, attempting to hide behind Bouchard’s integrity and skills as a negotiator for the secession process that would follow a Yes victory – not to mention his saint-like status that followed his recovery from near death when he contracted necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease) in 1994, resulting in the loss of a leg.
This is where Hébert’s book really comes into its own. The recent interviews bring the action to life again, this time with the personal inside stories most of us never knew. It’s shocking to hear Bouchard say about the day of the vote, “I could not talk with Mr. Parizeau or with people close to him. I simply could not get through to them.” What was the plan for the speeches at the end of the day? There was none. And therein may well lie the key to the loss of the Yes campaign: Bouchard’s plan for the road ahead conflicted with Parizeau’s and while many Quebecers voted Yes because they believed Lucien Bouchard was watching out for their best interests, especially in the areas of such things as currency and citizenship, the conflict between the two leaders meant that Parizeau never allowed this message to permeate the campaign and have the full effect it might otherwise have had.
Hébert asks each person she interviews to start by describing what they were doing the night of the vote. Although many of the answers were more dramatic, I found Sheila Copps’ to be poignant and even shockingly vivid for what it said about the entire scene.
On the night when the fate of Canada was in the balance, what role was being played by the deputy prime minister? She sat at home, watching the results on TV as millions of other Canadians were doing. Throughout the campaign she ended up speaking to the converted and being hobbled at every turn. On one occasion, her Quebec handlers so badly handled her arrangements that only 2 No camp volunteers awaited her, but lots of media attended. Thinking quickly on how to save face, she went to the subway to interview people. And although this had a more natural look to it, she says “I looked like an idiot.”
The role of deputy prime minister is largely honorific; since 2006, Harper hasn’t even had one. Hébert points out that Copps' appointment came in the wake of Kim Campbell’s defeat, just as Audrey McLaughlin (first woman leader of NDP) failed to keep 12 seats, the minimum to retain official party status in the House of Commons. Appointing Copps was a reward for her loyalty to Chrétien and also a signal that the new prime minister intended to bring more women to the corridors of federal power. Hébert’s assessment is that “up to a point” he did deliver. On Chrétien’s watch, “more women were appointed to the Senate, the Supreme Court bench, the upper levels of the diplomatic service and to the select ranks of the officers of Parliament than under any of his predecessors.” The provinces were similarly lacking in female participation at the time. But today the gap between federal and provincial levels in this area is even more striking: while the federal government remains male dominated, in 2013 half the provinces, including the 4 largest, were being run by female premiers. (At time of writing, this has dropped to 2).
In contrast to Copps’ evening alone at home, Paul Martin and more staff than would usually be in the office on any given day were at their desks. In the spring, they had put in place some measures – such as beginning to find some long-term backers for the debt, rather than all short term ones – to help stabilize the markets but there was no all-out contingency plan to soften the actual blow of a Yes vote. But the closer it got to October 31, the more panic was beginning to set in for the federalists.
On October 18, Chrétien addressed the Quebec Chamber of Commerce and in a long speech he told Quebecers that if they voted to break up Canada, there would be no one to negotiate with, that they would have many opposing voices to deal with and he ended with an impassioned personal appeal. But he was still holding on to the status quo, there was no discussion of a new constitutional deal that would convince any Quebecer that things could be better without the most radical change that would come with a Yes vote. As the polls continued to show the No side slipping, and now into the position of losers, one aide said to Chrétien “For god’s sake you have to give us something.”
On October 24, Chrétien spoke to crowd of 12,000 anxious Quebecers at Verdun and used the words “distinct society.” Wright reports that Chrétien had lost his cocky optimism and was visibly distressed, as he was the next day in a taped message to the nation.
Brian Tobin, then minister of fisheries and oceans, also decided it was time for action and pushed for a pro-Canada rally. Held on October 27 in Montreal and attended by approximately 100,000 Canadians from across the country, there is still no consensus on the effect of the rally. Tobin faced strong objections from leaders in Quebec, but he told Hébert that it took him less than half an hour to convince Chrétien to override his Quebec ministers and give the rally his blessing. Tobin called corporate head offices, including those of Air Canada, Canadian Airlines and Via Rail, to find funding and arrange cheap transportation, sparking a controversy over campaign spending (it was later determined that Quebec's electoral laws did not apply to sponsors located outside Quebec).
Hébert’s conversation with Tobin piqued my interest in this event, but Wright satisfied it. He provides a full chapter with a blow-by-blow account of events of the three days before the rally. On October 23, Tobin arrived at his office and was struck by the “eerie disconnect” between mundane fisheries business and the fact that Canada might be breaking apart. The mobilisation of support went beyond moving 100,000 people from across Canada to Montreal. It involved a massive phone campaign (relying on free long distance calls) and a series of “love letters to Quebec.” The latter are captured by Ben Wicks in Dear Canada: A Love Letter to My Country, based on his contribution to the effort: in his syndicated cartoon column he asked schoolchildren to send him their “love letters” for Quebec. Over 50,000 drawings and letters arrived! He quickly produced a selection and published it. I, for one, have it on order.
Personal memoirs, like those Wright relies on, and personal anecdotes of times 20 years in the past, as Hébert provides, may be suspect in some way, but they have the advantage of letting people from both sides speak for themselves. Taken together, they tell a gripping tale, a tale that forces you to remember, forces you to think.
Travelling in Europe at the time of the Scottish referendum, I found myself in a dinner conversation about this dramatic event and when I drew parallels with the Canadian situation of 1995, the looks were incredulous. Oh, they remembered Jean Chretien, in a way – “that’s the guy who strangled his own hecklers, right? The one with the wife who knocks intruders over the head with ‘eskimo carvings?’” – as if Aline Chrétien makes a practice of this daily, rather than on just one notable occasion. But a separatist movement that needed to be taken seriously? In Canada?? The country might be a bit boring (three of the five had actually travelled there, once) but it did, after all, survive the banking crisis and seemed to work well.
But serious it was. And The Night Canada Stood Still and The Morning After make for gripping reading. I had to keep reminding myself that I knew the outcome.
Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.