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Canada From the archives: Parizeau promises to ‘exact revenge’ for sovereigntist loss

Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau gestures during his speech to Yes supporters after losing the referendum in Montreal Monday night, Oct. 30, 1995.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

This article was originally published on October 31, 1995.

The referendum on Quebec sovereignty has exposed a nation divided and desperate for change.

The razor-thin federalist victory shows that the majority of the electorate wants change within Canada rather than by creating a separate state.

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Sovereigntists were less than graceful in defeat, emphasizing that a majority of francophones had voted for independence, and blaming ethnic minorities and big business for the loss. The federalists, for their part, refused to take the bait, calling for Quebeckers to unite and concentrate on job creation and economic growth.

The Yes side garnered 49.4 per cent of the vote and the No 50.6 per cent, and the difference between the two was 53,498 votes.

Premier Jacques Parizeau adopted a clearly confrontational tone, saying Quebeckers had not really lost the referendum because more than 60 per cent of francophones had voted for independence.

"It's true that we were beaten, but by whom? Money and ethnic votes," he told Yes supporters. He spoke ominously of the "temptation for revenge" and promised to "exact revenge" for the loss by never abandoning the dream to build a francophone nation in Quebec.

Christos Sirros, a Liberal MNA of Greek origin, was outraged by the Premier's remarks. He called the speech "rancorous and hateful, unworthy of a man in his position. It makes me sick."

Ontario NDP Leader Bob Rae, speaking on television, said it was the most disgraceful speech he had heard from a premier and suggested that alcohol might have been a factor.

The League for B'nai Brith called on Mr. Parizeau to take back his "very dangerous" comments.

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"We hope he will retract this statement after he's had the opportunity to speak with his advisers and to reflect on the damage he has caused to the feelings of people who reside in his province," spokesman Frank Dimant said in an interview.

"He isolated, insulted, and humiliated the ethnic community in Quebec . . . disenfranchised, eliminated them and cast them out as if they were of a lesser entity."

As Mr. Parizeau spoke, hundreds of youthful Yes supporters, angry at the result, gathered on Montreal's main street, just outside the No rally. More than 200 members of the Montreal Urban Community Police in riot gear were dispatched to control the crowd.

Both federalists and sovereigntists agreed that constitutional change should be swift and sweeping.

Quebec Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson said in his victory speech that the No win is a "mandate for change" and that federalists must reach out to "those whose dream was not fulfilled." But he did not offer any concrete proposals.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien also said he was "holding out a hand" to the Parti Quebecois government. He said the two sides must set aside their differences to address the demands of the electorate not only for constitutional reform but to improve the economic climate in Canada to increase jobs and growth.

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Bloc Quebecois Leader Lucien Bouchard was more blunt about the need to change, but revealed himself willing to negotiate constitutional matters. "If federalists do not realize the federal regime has never been as fragile as tonight, they have understood nothing," he said.

He made it clear that the sovereigntists have not given up their fight to make Quebec independent, saying that "the next time will be the right one and it could come faster than we think."

Mr. Parizeau said the battle is not over, telling supporters, "We spit in our hands and start again."

He suggested another referendum will happen soon: "We won't wait 15 years this time."

In the first sovereignty referendum, May 20, 1980, the Yes side garnered 40.44 per cent of the vote, the No side 59.56 per cent.

This time, as polls predicted, the race was so tight that it was impossible to predict the outcome until virtually every vote had been counted. There were a record 5,086,979 voters eligible, and turnout exceeded 94 per cent.

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Action Democratique Leader Mario Dumont also focused on the need for change.

"The history books will retain that we have signalled the end of Canada as we know it. . . . Canada now exists only on paper," he said last night in Riviere-du-Loup.

He summed up the mixture of profound disappointment and yearning in the Yes camp by saying: "The No side won and it hurts. But never have Quebeckers demanded change in such massive numbers."

The mood was restrained in the federalist camp. In Ottawa, Reform Party Leader Preston Manning said the results showed that Quebeckers have lost faith in Canada. Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow said Canada must change to accommodate the demands of Quebec and other provinces.

Michel Belanger, chairman of the No committee, said the tight vote indicated that Quebeckers are massively demanding constitutional change. "The results indicate there must be change, serious change."

For almost 2-1/2 hours last night the country held its breath, until Radio-Canada projected a No win at 10:20 Eastern time.

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The sovereigntists took an early lead, but it gradually trickled away until 9:35 p.m., when Radio-Canada flashed the result 50.00 Yes, 50.00 No. At that point, emotions in the two camps shifted dramatically. The Yes side, which had been leading from the first poll, suddenly fell silent and the No side exploded in jubilation confident that the momentum had shifted.

Early calculations indicated that voter turnout exceeded 90 per cent. In the end, more than 87,000 spoiled ballots, almost 2 per cent, may have made the difference because they accounted for many more votes that the spread between Yes and No.

The percentage was lower than the 2.2 per cent of ballots rejected in Quebec in the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional agreement. Under Quebec election rules, only four marks are allowed on a ballot: a check mark, an X, a cross or a line. Anything else - such as an asterisk or a rough squiggle - is likely to be rejected by the election officers.

A record 5,086,979 voters were eligible to vote, and there was an unprecedented turnout.

In the first sovereignty referendum, on May 20, 1980, the Yes side garnered 40.44 per cent of the vote, the No side 59.56. This time the pollsters foresaw a race so tight that they could not make a prediction about the outcome.

In a Groupe Leger & Leger poll only two days after the question was tabled in the National Assembly, support for the Yes side was 50.5 per cent and for the No side, 49.5. Almost two months later, in the final poll two days before the vote, the Yes and No were deadlocked at 50 per cent each.

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During that time, however, there were important shifts in public opinion that left each side believing a final surge would allow it to pull off a victory.

The Parti Quebecois government used all the benefits that being in power afforded it to promote sovereignty, orchestrating public hearings, staging a series of ceremonies and choosing a question that would appeal to the largest number of voters.

The draft bill on sovereignty was unveiled last December, and the vote was initially planned for the spring. But public hearings of 16 regional commissions revealed that Quebeckers wanted to know more about the costs of sovereignty and wanted reassurance about the economic and social consequences of a Yes vote.

In retrospect, one of the most important events proved to be a June 12 agreement signed by Mr. Parizeau, Mr. Bouchard and Mr. Dumont. In that pact, which became an integral part of the referendum legislation, the three sovereigntists promised to pursue an economic and political partnership with the rest of Canada after a Yes vote, a move designed to appeal to nationalist voters who did not want outright secession.

The referendum campaign did not begin officially until Oct. 1, but in September the PQ unveiled its Declaration of Independence and Bill 1, an Act Respecting the Future of Quebec, as well as its projet de societe (societal blueprint). That last became a key document later in the campaign, as sovereigntists warned of impending federal budget cuts and presented themselves as the protectors of social programs.

In fact, beyond the basic choice between sovereignty and federalism, the Yes and No sides were divided, in large part, by class and political leanings.

At the outset, the Yes side sputtered. Much of the federalist campaign consisted of dire warnings about the economic costs of sovereignty, including soaring interest rates and massive job losses. Provincial Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, leader of the No side, did much of his campaigning at chambers of commerce, and the big-business leaders who were often at his side became good targets for sovereigntists who were promising to make Quebec a social-democratic utopia.

Over all, however, the No strategy worked well. One week into the official campaign, federalists were crowing about the possibility of a 65- per-cent No vote.

The turnaround came when Mr. Bouchard was appointed "chief negotiator" for an independent Quebec in pursuing a partnership with Canada, and took over as de facto leader of the Yes forces. He jettisoned a number of economic studies and promoted the emotional attraction of sovereignty.

The Bloc Leader countered the scare tactics of the No side by insisting that market forces would push Canada to negotiate with a sovereign Quebec. He also hammered away at the federal refusal to make a constitutional offer that would answer the traditional demands of Quebec governments.

This issue came to a head when, on Oct. 21, the Prime Minister dismissed a demand by Mr. Johnson that Quebec be recognized as a distinct society. Sovereigntists pounced on the division, and the No side looked battered. The Canadian dollar plummeted.

Mr. Chretien's strategy of lying low changed dramatically. He addressed a federalist rally in Montreal, pledging his support for the distinct society and a limited constitutional veto for Quebec. The next night he addressed the nation on television, pleading with undecided voters not to break up Canada.

At that point the rising emotions of citizens outside Quebec spilled over, culminating in a massive rally in downtown Montreal on Friday and rallies in every province on the weekend.

Because the two sides were so close, the Yes and No camps pulled out all the stops to get voters out. Many people began lining up even before the polls opened at 10 a.m., and the crowds did not let up. At 8 p.m. closing time, people still in line at some Montreal polling stations were permitted to vote.

Last night was the fifth referendum in Quebec history. In 1992, 57 per cent of voters in the province rejected the Charlottetown accord on constitutional reform. Until 1980, a referendum had not been held since 1942, when the federal government asked to be released from a promise not to introduce conscription; 72 per cent of Quebeckers voted No, while 80 per cent of voters in the rest of Canada said Yes. The only time Quebeckers voted Yes in a referendum was in 1919, when 79 per cent voted to lift Prohibition.

With a report from The Canadian Press.

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