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(For The Globe and Mail)
(For The Globe and Mail)

Lawrence Martin

What really plagues the separatists? A history of strategic blunders Add to ...

That was a striking admission by Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois on the weekend. The sovereigntist leader said her biggest campaign mistake was talking about sovereignty. It’s what her party stands for of course. So it was peculiar to hear her say that. We’ll give the PQ leader, once dubbed the Concrete Lady for her endurability, high marks for candour though. And for accuracy as well.

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Highlighting the secession issue at the campaign’s outset with Pierre Karl Péladeau, the star candidate turned burden candidate, led to a big fall in PQ support. As Ms. Marois said, it would have been wiser to simply talk about providing solid government. Had Mr. Péladeau said his mission was to improve the Quebec economy, the PQ would have done better Monday night. How much better is anyone’s guess. But supporters of Canadian unity can feel a sense of relief over the strategic blunder.

Since the sovereignty movement began in earnest about a half century ago, it’s those types of mistakes that have helped keep this country together. Probably none was greater than the one in the closing stage of the nerve-racking 1995 referendum. Beginning the campaign’s final week the secessionists held a lead of several points. The federalist side staged a last big rally in Montreal on the Friday before the Monday vote. Organized by Sheila Copps and Brian Tobin, it drew an estimated 100,000, many from outside the province.

What impact it had was hard to measure. But the strange thing was that the sovereigntists did nothing to counter it. They fell silent. They staged no big rally on the Saturday or Sunday. All they needed to win, as the razor-thin result showed, was a bit of momentum. It wasn’t there.

One reason offered was they thought their lead was enough to hold up. Another was that they worried their previous rally in Verdun was too negative and they wanted to calm things down before voting day. The most farfetched theory was that then Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard pulled back because he decided that in the event of victory the thought of playing second fiddle to Jacques Parizeau, who was then premier, was too distressing. So he got cold feet.

Whatever the reason, the failing may well have saved the federation. Mr. Parizeau subsequently self-destructed with a race-related outburst, blaming the defeat on “money and the ethnic vote.” Unopposed Lucien Bouchard then became leader of the Parti Québécois and premier of Quebec. The federal side then got fortunate again. Support for Mr. Bouchard was enormous. What if, as the freshly annointed premier, he decided to seek a new mandate for himself and for separation. Many in Ottawa feared he could succeed in such a scenario. It didn’t happen.

The federal side drew on good fortune in 1980 as well. It looked for certain that René Lévesque would lead his referendum forces in a campaign against a newly elected Tory party which was nowhere in Quebec and had an untested new leader in Joe Clark. But the Clark Tories fell on their own sword within a year of their 1979 win, thereby allowing Pierre Trudeau, a dominant federal force in Quebec, to return to politics.

A big Lévesque mistake gave him an opening. He told journalists that Mr. Trudeau was showing his “Elliott” side in the campaign, Elliott being his second name courtesy of his mother. Trudeau pounced. In his famous speech at the Paul Sauve arena, he came at his opponent. “Well, that’s contempt for you, my friends, to say that the Quebeckers of the No side are not as good and have perhaps a little bit of foreign blood, while the yes people have pure blood in their veins.” He then named Lévesque cabinet ministers with English names.

The No side rolled to victory. In Mr. Bouchard and Lévesque the sovereignty movement had two of the most gifted leaders the country has seen. If they couldn’t win with them, they weren’t going to win with the Concrete Lady.

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