Twenty years ago next week, the writs were drawn up for what would arguably turn out to be the most consequential Quebec provincial election yet. That sleepy summer campaign left Quebeckers, and the country, ill-prepared for the wrenching months that were to follow.
The return to power in September, 1994 of the Parti Québécois, after nine years in opposition, largely reflected the long Quebec tradition of l’alternance. In an essentially two-party political system, dominated by a blue-nationalist and a red-federalist option, it was simply les bleus’ turn to rule.
This explains why neither Jean Chrétien’s immediate advisers, nor the prime minister himself, greeted the PQ’s election under Jacques Parizeau with the seriousness it warranted. Parizeau had promised to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty within a year. But many in Ottawa were skeptical that those around the PQ Premier would let him proceed, since the Yes side trailed badly in the polls. Fewer still seemed concerned that the Yes side might turn the tide.
It was not until the final days of the referendum campaign 13 months later that Chrétien and his aides woke up to the reality staring the country in the eyes. In late October, 1995, a “visibly anxious, emotional, beaten down” Prime Minister addressed his caucus, writes Robert Wright in The Night Canada Stood Still. “His tone was one of bitter resignation. Nothing remained of the bravado that had carried him aloft through most of the campaign.”
Wright, a history professor at the Trent University campus in Oshawa, Ont., does a good job of recounting the panic that set in among federalist strategists in the final week before the Oct. 30 referendum, juxtaposed against the overconfidence they displayed during the previous 51 weeks. Chrétien, who felt straitjacketed by the No forces, led by Quebec Liberal leader Daniel Johnson,threw his referendum playbook out the window. There was a hastily arranged rally at the Verdun arena on Oct. 24 and a televised speech to the nation the following night, in which Chrétien solemnly vowed to recognize Quebec as a distinct society and grant it a veto over changes to the constitution. It was a Hail Mary pass that went against everything he stood for.
The pièce de résistance on the multi-course menu the No side served up to Quebeckers during the final week of the campaign was the so-called Oct. 27 Love-in in downtown Montreal. The brainchild of Chrétien cabinet minister Brian Tobin, it saw thousands of Canadians from other provinces travel to Quebec at special “unity rates” that were a fraction of the prices normally charged by Air Canada, Canadian Airlines and Via Rail. The Toronto Star even chartered buses.It was a blatant violation of Quebec’s election spending laws. There was feigned outrage from Yes-side politicians Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc Québécoisleader who had replaced Parizeau as the de facto leader of the Yes side; behind the scenes, they believed the rally worked in their favour.
They were probably right. Even the No side’s private pollster showed Yes support rising 1.2 percentage points overnight. Three days later, by the end of a night no one who lived through it can forget, the No side “won” by 54,288 votes out of the more than 4.7 million cast.
That fateful night occupies only one chapter in Wright’s book, which traces the sinuous, 13-month trajectory toward Oct. 30, 1995 and its immediate aftermath. Wright performs an admirable task in selecting and weighting the importance of the countless twists and turns of that year, many of which I had forgotten or discounted. As such, he has written a useful guide for newcomers, and a provided a refresher course for the rest of us, about a period about which surprisingly few books have been exclusively devoted.
It’s a pity, however, that Wright does not seek to capitalize on the passage of time, and his historian’s perch, to situate the referendum campaign in its broader context. How did it change Canada and Quebec? Does its impact haunt us still? Wright offers no answers, or even hypotheses.
This is where Wright lets his reader down. He is meticulous in his sourcing, but relies overwhelmingly on the memoirs of the politicians who fought the referendum campaign and the the newspaper columns of the political pundits who covered it. But this is not a people’s history of the referendum. Wright provides no insight into how average Quebeckers experienced the campaign. Had he been able to convey how personally wrenching most voters found it he might have been able to explain why, though the sovereigntists won the campaign, they lost its aftermath.
Konrad Yakabuski is a columnist at The Globe and Mail who covered the 1995 referendum campaign as a reporter for Le Devoir.