The Present State of Canada

By Evans, J. A. S. | Contemporary Review, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The Present State of Canada


Evans, J. A. S., Contemporary Review


On the night before Hallowe'en in 1995, there was high drama across Canada. 30 October was the day when Quebec held a referendum on secession from the Canadian federation, and returns were coming in. Ninety-three per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. The question was equivocal, for it asked whether or not the Quebec government should be authorized to seek a new political and economic association with the 'Rest of Canada', the ROC of the media, which, it was assumed, would continue to be bound by the present Canadian constitution. Outright secession would come only if no satisfactory terms for a new union could be reached within a year. The wording on the ballot was not the first choice of Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, whose pequistes, officially the Patti Quebecois or PQ for short, had been elected in 1994 with the promise to offer voters a clear choice within a year. But the polls showed that a clear choice could not win, and in Ottawa, Lucien Bouchard, whose separatist Bloc Quebecois holds fifty-four of Quebec's seventy-five seats in Parliament, was saying openly that a referendum should be held only when a majority of Quebeckers was prepared to say 'yes' to secession. Parizeau compromised. Even so, as the campaign progressed, the polls showed the 'yes' side Jagging, and the separatist camp decided that the problem was Parizeau himself. At the end of the first week in October, Bloc Quebeois leader Lucien Bouchard left Ottawa and took over command of the 'yes' forces. The separatists altered their strategy. Economic arguments for or against secession were shelved, and the 'yes' platform was transformed into a vote for a new partnership with Canada, though with outright secession still the ultimate threat.

Yet after the referendum was over, it was abundantly clear that in the minds of the PQ leaders, the question was clearcut, and 'Oui' equalled secession. A report in the Toronto Globe and Mail claimed that the PQ government was ready for action after a 'yes' victory by the slightest margin. The Quebec National Assembly would reconvene within the week formally to acknowledge the referendum result, and request immediate negotiations with the federal government. The Quebec Minister of International Affairs, Bernard Landry, had already sent letters to foreign embassies in Ottawa asking for swift recognition by their countries, and a press release on Bouchard's letterhead invited Quebeckers serving in the Canadian army to join a new armed force which Quebec would set up immediately after a 'yes' victory. France was expected to adopt a resolution congratulating Quebeckers on their decision and offer support. The French move should in turn arouse anxiety in Washington which would urge Ottawa to begin negotiations leading to secession. Nor was Parizeau under illusions about the economic repercussions, much as separatist rhetoric minimized them. He cobbled together a line of credit to cushion the crisis of confidence a 'yes' victory might provoke, and seven months after the referendum, the French-language newsmagazine, L'Actualite revealed the details of this so-called 'Plan O': it was to give the PQ immediate access to 37 billion dollars held by three Quebec banks, the Quebec pension fund and the provincially-owned power corporation, Hydro-Quebec. The PQ was prepared to gamble.

By contrast, the 'no' side was adrift. It was abundantly clear that the federalists had no strategy in case they lost. There was no one to speak for English Canada. The prime minister, Jean Chretien was a Quebecker; in fact, since 1968, the federal government had been dominated by Quebeckers, first Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, leading a Liberal government, then Brian Mulroney of the Conservatives and now Chretien, a Liberal again. The premiers of the other nine provinces remained on the sidelines, except for the occasional growl that they would never agree to what the separatists were peddling. Initially the federalists were confident. …

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