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Would the federal government have sent the army into Quebec if the sovereigntist camp had won the 1995 referendum by a narrow margin? Yes, if only to protect the federal buildings, says Lawrence Martin in Iron Man, the second volume of his biography of Jean Chrétien.

When the story came out, Quebec's political class was quick to react. Premier Jean Charest said he was not aware of any plan, which makes sense, since as then-head of the Tory party, he was not in on the secrets of the Prime Minister's Office.

Parti Québécois leader Bernard Landry said that he was sure that the federal government wouldn't have dispatched the army in Quebec after a democratic vote. Mr. Landry's reaction was predictable: It has always been part of the sovereigntist strategy to let Quebeckers believe that a referendum victory, however close, would lead to a peaceful, happy walk in a garden of roses.

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As for Mr. Chrétien, he dismissed Mr. Martin's revelation as "bullshit" -- another predictable reaction, since Mr. Chrétien has no interest in commenting on hypothetical and explosive scenarios.

In any case, Mr. Martin's contention -- based on an interview with David Collenette, then-defence minister -- is hardly a revelation. Common sense tells us that yes indeed, depending on the social climate following a close Yes vote, soldiers might have been sent to protect the federal buildings or other crucial sites or even persons. Actually, special security measures would probably have been needed on both sides.

Although the referendum campaign was remarkably peaceful, one can imagine the fury of the federalists who would have seen their country about to break up because of a few thousand, or, worse, a few dozen votes -- and on an unclear, misleading question to boot. And what about the die-hard sovereigntists who would have heard, as they were celebrating their victory, that Mr. Chrétien was refusing to negotiate the conditions of secession? Maybe the province's police forces could have dealt with the situation by themselves. Or maybe not.

In any case, in the days following their razor-thin defeat, many high-ranking sovereigntists didn't hide their relief at the fact that the vote hadn't been the reverse. It would have been chaos, they admitted (in private, of course).

My guess is that in the week before the vote, when polls showed a sovereigntist victory was possible, the PMO was in a state of panic and no clear-cut, detailed plan was made.

History shows us that there is much more improvisation and last-minute decision-making in times of crisis than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. In the sovereigntist camp, for instance, the state of delusion was so high at the end of the campaign that none of then-premier Jacques Parizeau's aides prepared for the possibility of a defeat.

The sovereigntist brains trust was relying on the PQ's house pollster, Michel Lepage, who was predicting a Yes victory by at least six percentage points. Astonishingly, nobody around Mr. Parizeau thought of writing a draft speech for the leader in case of a defeat -- something that Eddie Goldenberg, Mr. Chrétien's trusted adviser, was cautious enough to do. This total lack of planning explains in part the angry reaction of Mr. Parizeau, who, faced with a defeat he hadn't seen coming, lashed out at the "ethnic votes."

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Even though it's probable that no clear plan had been drafted, the idea of using the Canadian Forces to restore order in Quebec must have been considered.

If it hadn't been, it would have been totally irresponsible.

lgagnon@lapresse.ca

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