Today is the day after. October 31 is 19 years to the day-after the last Quebec sovereignty referendum. It was 1995 and it was the second time the question had gone to a province-wide vote. The decision was a squeaker, with Quebecers and Canadians waking up on Halloween day (if they’d slept at all) to a no-to-sovereignty vote of 50.58 per cent.
That wasn’t much of a win for the No. Yet it kept Quebec in Canada.
But – what if the decision had been a Yes? Journalist and whip-smart political analyst Chantal Hébert, with colleague (and former politician) Jean Lapierre, convinced 17 former politicians, on both sides, at the provincial and federal levels, to confess what they’d have done in the case of a Oui victory.
It makes for a heck of a read. The book is Confessions post-référendaires: Les acteurs politiques de 1995 et le scenario d’un oui (2014, filed in the Lennoxville Library’s French non-fiction section at 971.4; in English, it’s titled The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum And The Day That Almost Was, and is available through an interlibrary loan).
And one of the more astonishing revelations is the depth of distrust, and in some cases active dislike, that many fellow travellers had for each other: “The 1995 Yes and No camps were riddled with dysfunctional relationships. On a good day, Jean Chrétien and Daniel Johnson had little to say to each other.” Yes, the prime minister of Canada and the leader of the opposition in Quebec, the man who headed the No forces, could scarcely stop rolling their eyes at each other.
To this day, Johnson is still bitter – and he won.
Other politicians were left on their own to do whatever, or outright kicked to the curb.
Chrétien was the Quebec-born prime minister largely blamed for almost destroying the country, conducting a lacklustre campaign during the referendum. Writes Hébert: “In Chrétien’s own interview, I encountered predictably more of the happy-go-lucky persona that he so likes to present to the world and less of the introspective political animal that he really is. To see evidence of the true conjurer at work, one must take stock of the gap between his public words and his private interactions.”
“In the saga of the 1995 referendum, all roads inevitably lead back to Jean Chrétien… and to a barrage of smoke.”
Can Chrétien admit his mistakes?
Also fighting the good fight for the federalists back in 1995 was Sherbrooke member of Parliament Jean Charest, then the leader of an almost completely destroyed Progressive Conservative Party, which was down to two elected MPs. Charest, at least, allowed some passion to show through, attempting to match the emotion of Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau.
Still, the majority of constituents in both Chrétien and Charest’s ridings poked the two men in the eyes and voted Oui.
Had that trend overwhelmed all of Quebec, the province would have been negotiating succession with Chrétien. In fact, the whole of the federal government was packed full of Quebeckers. That conflict of interest would have been too much for the rest of the country, Charest suggests. Quebecers could not negotiate with Quebecers: “There is little doubt that one would have had to reconfigure the federal government,” he says in this book.
Even other Liberals plotted to relieve Chrétien of his leadership in the case of a losing vote.
In turn Preston Manning, the leader of the 52 MP-strong Reform Party, says he was prepared to force the whole of Chrétien government to resign, hoping to become prime minister himself and usher Quebec out the door. (Quebecers, he reasons, should not be kept in Canada against their will.)
Of the many players the two journalists approached, only Stephen Harper refused to be interviewed. At the time, he was the Reform Party’s referendum critic, unencumbered by worry that his words might lose Quebec support for his party – because Reform had none.
Those featured in the book are retired from politics; Harper’s silence may be connected to the fact that he is now prime minister, and an extremely closemouthed one at that. (In its newest incarnation, the Conservative Party of Canada has a mere five MPs in Quebec, although that includes the local Mégantic-l’Érable representative Christian Paradis.)
Regardless, Chantal Hébert has some insight into Stephen Harper. And you’ll find more in her first book, French Kiss: Le Rendez-vous de Stephen Harper avec le Quebec (2007, also available in the Lennoxville Library, filed in French non-fiction at 971.07).
The interviews with the Quebec Oui camp are just as fascinating, including Lucien Bouchard’s distaste for Jacques Parizeau.
It really does seem that every single person interviewed had a different vision of what would happen the day after a Yes vote. Bouchard wanted negotiation for a better power-sharing deal with Canada; Parizeau wanted independence, period.
What would have come of this? A horrific mess, clearly.
France plays a role in the Hébert/Lapierre book. Or the idea of France, at least, with both sides expecting to lobby hard that country’s politicians. Jacques Parizeau wanted support for his eventual declaration of independence, while the Non side wanted France to keep quiet, thank you very much.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Canada, will host French president François Hollande on a state visit next week. The timing is impeccable.
Are you looking for something that tackles the sovereignty issue from a fictional perspective? Novelist Heather O’Neill’s new book, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, is set against the backdrop of the 1995 referendum. It’s on the short-list for next month’s big Giller Prize announcement.
– Eleanor Brown, October 31, 2014