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The referendum question asked only for a mandate to negotiate. (The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail)
The referendum question asked only for a mandate to negotiate. (The Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail)

William Johnson

One referendum, three decades of misrepresentation Add to ...

No major event in our history has been so consistently misrepresented as Quebec's referendum of May 20, 1980. Its significance has been twisted by politicians and pundits for 30 years now.

When the Parti Québécois won the 1976 elections promising a referendum on sovereignty, The Globe and Mail shifted me from Parliament to Quebec's National Assembly. What a privilege to have witnessed first-hand this challenge to Canada's existence.

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The referendum followed the decolonization movements that freed Asia and Africa from their imperial conquerors. New France was also conquered and Confederation was passed without consulting the people - many claimed that Quebec remained a colony like Algeria, with the right to secede.

The 1980 referendum, with 60 per cent rejecting secession, ended Quebec's claim to be a colony. But in the months before the 1995 referendum, many leading politicians and journalists claimed that 1980 confirmed Quebec's right to secede.

Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard: In 1980, attorney-general Jean Chrétien and prime minister Pierre Trudeau "both participated fully in Quebec's referendum campaign and they submitted themselves to Quebec's democratic will."

Liberal premier Daniel Johnson: "It seems to me perfectly clear that in Quebec, we already exercised in 1980 the right to self-determination. So I can't see why that right would suddenly have disappeared."

His PQ successor, Jacques Parizeau: "The prominent financial and personal participation of federal authorities, notably Messrs. Chrétien and Trudeau, during the 1980 referendum, constitutes a precedent and establishes the legitimacy of the process."

Globe columnist Lysiane Gagnon: "For 30 years or so, the whole political class of Canada, including the leaders of the federalist camp, has recognized as valid a majority of 50 per cent plus one. This is what Pierre Trudeau - and Jean Chrétien - were willing to recognize in 1980, and it hasn't been challenged since then. It's too late now, in the midst of a referendum campaign, to change the rules unilaterally."

Other prominent federalists such as Jean Chrétien and Jean Charest have made statements suggesting much the same over the years.

In fact, though, neither side maintained in 1980 that the referendum result would be binding. Neither side enshrined a 50-per-cent threshold.

Before the vote, Quebec's government published a white paper recognizing that the vote could be consultative only, "and therefore it would serve no purpose to include in the law special provisions regarding the majority required or the required level of turnout."

Pierre Trudeau, in his great speech of May 14, 1980, addressed premier René Lévesque on the consequences of a Yes majority vote, saying: "If you knock on the door of sovereignty-association, no negotiation will be possible."

He also refuted the argument that democracy meant Canada must be bound by a majority Yes vote: "It's as though I were to say to Mr. Lévesque: 'The population of Newfoundland has just voted 100 per cent to renegotiate the electricity contract with Quebec. You are therefore obliged, in the name of democracy, to respect the will of Newfoundland, no?' It's clear that this reasoning doesn't work. Democracy can express the wishes of the Québécois, but that can't bind the others - those in the other provinces who did not vote - to do what the Québécois decide."

The 1980 referendum couldn't establish Quebec's right to secede because the question asked only for a mandate to negotiate secession. Mr. Lévesque promised that a Yes vote would not necessarily lead to secession, only to negotiations on secession. And he gave the rest of Canada a veto over that secession by promising it would take place only if Canada agreed to an "association." Without that, there would be no sovereignty.

And if Canada did agree to an association, Mr. Lévesque promised, then Quebec would be sovereign only if Quebeckers voted Yes in a second referendum on that agreement.

In the last weeks of the campaign, he never mentioned secession, independence, sovereignty or even sovereignty-association. He spoke of pride, of equality, of giving Quebec more negotiating muscle.

Hard-line separatist Pierre Bourgault later recalled: "I remember that I was the only one to speak of independence. The Parti Québécois did not speak about it and, three weeks before the referendum, Lévesque ordered his troops to speak only about association."

The 1980 referendum established in fact, rather than in myth, that Quebec could no longer claim to be a colony with a right to secede. The prime minister repudiated negotiating sovereignty-association, regardless of the result. And he proclaimed that a vote held only in Quebec was in no way binding to Canada.

The real precedent from the 1980 referendum was the use of a trick question referring to "the new Quebec-Canada agreement," when there was no agreement and none was likely. It established that Quebec's government would resort to smoke and mirrors, rather than the voters' true preference, to elicit a semblance of consent to secession. These precedents would be followed in 1995, with a reference to an "agreement" and the mirage of a "partnership" to follow secession.

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