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The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum, and the Day That Almost Was
By Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre
Random House 2014lematinsuvant

On 18 September 2014, the people of Scotland voted on a question that was all of six words long: “should Scotland be an independent country?” Some seven weeks later, on 9 November 2014, the people of Catalonia voted on a slightly more complicated question: “Do you want Catalonia to become a state? If so, should it be an independent state?” The responses were strikingly different. Scots came out in big numbers and voted no, roughly 55% to 45%; the only regions where yes was a majority were Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Dundee (home of my wife’s staunchly anti-independence family). Catalans, on the other hand, came out in small numbers and voted 80% in favour of both of their questions: should be a state, should be independent. 10% voted in favour of one but not two: should be a state, that state shouldn’t be independent (I myself am not clear on what that would look like). A mere 4.5% voted no to both: no state, no independence. The remaining 5.5%, voted in ways that would indicate, basically, that they either spoiled their ballot or didn’t understand the combination of questions (you can see the full official results here).

The differences between these two results pose some serious quandaries for people who care about independence movements among small nations. Coming out of the Scottish ballot, it would have been very easy to say well, that’s all done, then, isn’t it? We live in a brave new world of globalisation now, young people don’t care about old stuff like national identity, and why can’t we just all get along? The Catalan referendum would seem to teach the opposite lesson about the same social forces. Globalisation has made us more aware that people in small countries do just fine. Young people won’t put up with grouchy conservatives telling them that their identity doesn’t really mean anything. Lots of different countries live side by side very peacefully. Can’t we just all get along? Globalisation, she is strange.

FlagofQuebecCanadians are, of course, among the people who care passionately about independence movements among small nations. Canada has lived through two referenda on Quebec independence, although neither one was exactly presented that way. In 1980 the people of Quebec voted on “sovereignty-association,” a concept defined by René Lévesque — at that time the premier of Quebec (roughly equivalent to an American governor) and the founder of the nationalist Parti Québécois — in his book Option Québec, which he first published in 1968. The concept is hard to explain; Quebec would be “sovereign,” but would maintain certain connections with Canada that it didn’t have with any other countries, including a currency union (something the Scottish independentistes had promised too; Catalans nationalists take their staying part of the Euro as a given). That “it’s hard to explain” quality goes a long way towards explaining why the 1980 referendum failed roughly 60/40. The second go-around was in 1995, when, a few years after a series of failed attempts to get Quebec to recognise the Canadian constitution (something it still hasn’t done), an impossibly convoluted question was put to the population there: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” Opinions still differ over whether or not most voters read that mind-bender simply as a question about whether Quebec should leave Canada. That vote was a lot closer: it failed, but by just over one half of one percent, or about 65,000 votes.

Now, almost twenty years later, the closeness of that result, and the degree to which the Canadian government was unprepared for it, is the subject of Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre’s book The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum, and the Day That Almost Was. The book is a combination of interviews, reporting and opinion; it’s basically arranged as a series of extended, interview-heavy profiles of key political players. Hébert is a well-respected political reporter in both English- and French-language media, a combination nearly unheard of in Canada. Lapierre is a shape-shifting politician, having bopped between federalist and nationalist parties before retiring into a career as a commentator. They are, then, very well-situated to figure this referendum thing out; together their rolodexes must fill an entire office. You get a sense of that in the table of contents: those profiled include the Canadian prime minister at the time (Jean Chrétien), the premier of Quebec during the referendum (Jacques Parizeau), and no fewer than seven other former premiers of various provinces (including three others from Quebec). The book itself, though, is really, really strange, and that strangeness embodies a lot of contemporary difficulties in coming to grips with recent independence movements in Canada and elsewhere.

Hébert and Lapierre talk as though they are working really hard to be even-handed, but by the end of the book it’s hard not to feel that the nationalist side has been short-changed. The last chapter, titled “In Lieu of an Index,” is a back and forth between the two authors as they summarise each of the interviews. Hébert recalls interviewing Raymond Chrétien, the nephew of Jean Chrétien and also his ambassador to the United States. “Chrétien took issue with my negative assessment of the federalist prospects,” she writes.

I in turn questioned whether approaching the referendum campaign as if voting against sovereignty was simply a no-brainer would get the federalist camp very far.

CanadianFlagThis is an important point to make, and I rejoiced to read it, because one infuriating aspect of political discourse in English Canada is how many people assume the only reasoned position on any form of Quebec nationalism is screamingly unequivocal rejection. In the minds of nearly every English-Canadian I know, it’s as though the 2.3 million people that voted “yes” in 1995 are so insane as to be unimaginable. I have a very good friend, a Montrealer with a mom from rural Quebec and a dad from England, whose experience sums it up nicely. He was an early supporter of a young political party called Québec Solidaire. After successfully getting his Irish wife to join him in voting for the Bloc Québécois, he was emboldened to try to get some of his friends, Montreal anglos who were for the most part fellow grad students, to support Solidaire at the provincial level. They’re very green, he’d say. Sounds good, they’d respond. They’re pro-immigration, and their co-leader is a recent immigrant. That sounds good! They’re very feminist; their constitution says that at least one of their co-leaders must be a woman. Sounds great! They support a strong welfare state. Really good! They support free post-secondary education. Wow, that’s fabulous! They’re pro-independence. Ah, no. I’ll never vote for them. Conversation over.

A break from this attitude that Quebec nationalism is fundamentally abject would be welcome; I was thus prepared to like this book. But it’s clear that despite their impeccable credentials, neither Hébert nor Lapierre takes separatists as seriously as they take federalists. There are profiles of seventeen leaders in this book; only three of those led separatist forces. Towards the end of the book, Hébert congratulates herself by recalling how Preston Manning, the leader of the right-wing Reform Party, was surprised that her newspaper (the staunchly social-democratic and nationalist Le Devoir) would be interested in a party like his. The Reform Party was based in Western Canada and utterly unsympathetic to bilingualism or special constitutional status for Quebec, so Manning wasn’t responding to many interview requests from Quebec’s high-minded media outlets. Hébert explains that

In fact, a journalist trained to cover federalists and sovereignists on an equal footing, as those of us who cover the Quebec debate first-hand usually are, could only be professionally intrigued by a party such as Reform.

But evidence that she finds the complexities of the federalist and sovereignist movements equally intriguing is pretty thin in The Morning After. On the “No” side we have interviews with a prime minister, cabinet ministers, back-benchers, former premiers, future premiers, then-serving premiers, an ambassador, a future opposition leader, and a future prime minister. On the “Yes” side, we have interviews with the then-serving premier, the future premier who at that time led the “Yes” forces in the federal parliament, and a future provincial-opposition leader. That’s it. Quebec separatism is just as complicated and diverse a movement as Canadian federalism, but actual separatists are just not given sustained attention here, at least not compared to the sustained attention given to the federalist forces. It’s as though being more interested in the “No” side of the Quebec debate is simply a no-brainer.

Photo: Ryan Remiorz / Canadian Press

Photo: Ryan Remiorz / Canadian Press

It may seem I am using Hébert’s own words against her, but I don’t think so. In her profile of Raymond Chrétien, she talks a bit about the way that the Clinton administration came to its support for the “No” side, essentially in opposition to France — who played fast and loose with how they felt and whom many Quebec nationalists assumed would be the first to recognise them as an independent county in the event of a “Yes” majority. “Given a choice,” Hébert and Lapierre write, “between a stable geopolitical status quo and the uncertainty of a process aiming to substantially reconfigure its Canadian partner, the White House was dealing with a no-brainer.” I for one would question whether that approach would have gotten the U.S. very far in the event of a more viable movement for Quebec separatism. The last two referendum questions have played fast and loose with the basic question of whether Quebec would become an independent country. A Scottish-style, six-word question, or even a Catalan-style consultation that dares to use the formulation of an “independent state,” would mean the U.S. faced the possibility of dealing with a new independent country forming at its border. In any event, it’s pretty clear that in the event of a “Yes” majority this might have happened anyway, fuzzy referendum questions or no. Having taken a side on that country’s very existence would create massive problems once embassies started setting up and negotiations opened on trade agreements. Responding to the consequences of such diplomatic side-taking would be pretty far from a “no-brainer.”

Flag of ScotlandIf I take anything from watching the Scottish referendum from afar, it’s that this “no-brainer” approach simply will not do. One aspect of that debate that bothered me a lot was that I came out of it kind of liking David Cameron. As British Prime Minister he could only be against independence for Scotland, but fair play to the guy, he took the other side seriously. There was no attempt to block a vote. London and Edinburgh agreed upon a question pretty quickly. Cameron made it clear that his government would recognise the result whichever way it went. He and his government did try to woo the Scots into staying with the Union, although certainly they also sometimes tried to scare them into staying with the Union. But you never got the sense that they thought this was all kind of stupid. Scottish nationalism, however you feel about it, is a massive force in Scottish politics, with fully fleshed-out positions on actual governance issues — because you would have to actually, you know, govern, as they do in the Scottish Assembly. It all seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? Acknowledging that needn’t imply that you support any of this stuff. It’s just that the consensus throughout the United Kingdom is that the Scottish National Party is a real party, one that should be taken as seriously as the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, or Labour. That is not a consensus that exists about the Parti Québécois in English Canada, and I include the English-speaking parts of Quebec in that formulation. Despite the fact that they’ve run the provincial government for almost half the time since their foundation, English Canadians talk about them basically the way that people in the UK talk about the UK Independence Party, better known as UKIP. That is to say, they speak of them as though they are some fringe party with no positions on anything not having to do with nationalism, a party that only crazy people vote for.

That is also to say that they talk about Quebec nationalists in more or less the same way that the Spanish talk about Catalan nationalists, and that is not a great model to emulate. Catalans are quick to recall how oppressed their language and culture were under the Franco dictatorship, and the post-Franco period marked a rebirth of their identity. But the new constitution drafted in the wake of El Generalissimo’s death did not make the country a federation, and despite the presence of assemblies in no fewer than seventeen of Spain’s regions, there are pretty vigorous separatist movements in both Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Madrid government, like large portions of the Spanish intelligentsia, tend to see those movements as demonic. The day before Catalonia’s referendum, the International New York Times (formerly known as the International Herald-Tribune) ran an op-ed by Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo, Núria Amat and Mario Vargas Llosa (apparently a Spanish citizen as well as a Nobel laureate from Peru — who knew?) titled “A Threat to Spanish Democracy.” It opens with this reasoned assessment:

On Sunday, in defiance of an order from the Spanish Constitutional Court, a farcical referendum on Catalan separatism will take place. It is not clear who is holding it, as there are neither official voters’ rolls nor auditors, only a semi-official cabal of volunteers.

All of this is ostensibly correct. The Madrid government has always refused to entertain the possibility of holding a vote on independence, a refusal that has been held up by the country’s courts. The Catalan government (currently a coalition of right-of-centre soft-nationalists and a much smaller socialist, hard-nationalist party) decided to go ahead anyway. Various forms of brinksmanship promptly ensued. Finally, as reported in the Madrid-based and Catalan-sceptical El Pais on 7 November, barely 48 hours before the referendum, the Spanish Prime Minister agreed that the government would allow the vote as an exercise in “libertad de expression,” on the condition that the Catalan government had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Hence the cabal: anyone having anything to do with the Catalan government was explicitly forbidden from taking any part in the voting. Here’s exactly what Rafael Catalá Polo, who despite his name is the Spanish justice minister, had to say about the role of the Catalan parliament, called the Generalitat:

If the Generalitat, which is who the Constitutional Court has been ordering to suspend the voting, does not promote any actions in favour of an unauthorized referendum, it wouldn’t seem to be necessary for the Court, nor for other judicial bodies, to act.

Gee, what a nice guy! Nothing at all threatening about a justice minister saying that! The article also notes that nobody was quite sure what “promote any actions” was supposed to mean. This is in addition to the fact that the Madrid government has been clear that, no matter what the result, they’re not going to act on it. It’s all just “libertad de expresión,” and obviously no central government is going to act on that, right?

catalanFlagOn that same day, El País also ran an article called “Ni Cataluña es Escocia, ni Madrid es Londres”: Catalonia isn’t Scotland, Madrid isn’t London. Boy, no kidding. The Catalan-language media has been fond of pointing out the same thing, although for the opposite reasons. I came to my reluctant admiration for David Cameron during the summer of 2013, which my family spent in Barcelona. The daily newspaper Ára is the rough equivalent in Catalonia of Quebec’s Le Devoir: in Catalan, social-democratic, nationalist. They give a lot of coverage to Scotland, for obvious reasons, and a sense of envy drips from it. Praise for the London government and its even-handedness, its reasonableness, its general grasp of reality, is a common motif.

ReformPCAAnd so I come to the another reluctant admiration, and one that gives me real shame. That is Preston Manning, a co-founder of the now-defunct right-wing Reform Party, and its leader during the 1995 Quebec referendum. When I was in graduate school in the province of Alberta during the 1990s, the words “Preston Manning” were shorthand for small-minded, right-wing Albertan-ness. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that my left-wing friends and I measured our political bona fides by how much we hated him. And yet, Hébert and Lapierre represent Manning as the only Anglo willing to think seriously about Quebec as another country, and because of that they find him suspicious. Manning recalls to Hébert and Lapierre being frustrated by the inability, or perhaps just refusal, of anyone in the government to debate what a Canadian economy without Quebec would actually look like:

There was no debate in Parliament. We had no discussion that came remotely close to an intellectual debate. We tried to argue that the government should initiate such a debate but [Prime Minister Jean] Chrétien would respond that this was just providing a forum for separatists. In the House they treated us like we were almost as bad a problem as the Bloc [Québécois, the Quebec nationalist party that sat in Ottawa]. They said we were treasonous for raising such questions.

Manning famously felt patronisingly dismissed by Liberals: he was convinced they saw the Reform Party as a bunch of backwoods reactionaries not worth taking seriously. But Manning’s recollection about the parliamentary disconnect has the ring of truth to it. Professional intrigue aside, one reason Hébert and Lapierre seem to disapprove of Manning is that they see him in almost exactly the same terms as the governing Liberals. Presenting Manning and the leader of the separatist forces, Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, as two sides of the same coin, they write that

Upon a Yes victory, Parizeau could expect the Reform leader to call for talks to set the terms of Quebec’s secession. Preston Manning was in fact ready to treat the barest of majority results as a valid mandate to arrange Quebec’s departure from federation.

They don’t argue that this makes him treasonous, but the tone here, and the fact that they place Manning’s sense of a “Yes” victory in the same sentence as Parizeau’s sense of it, tells me that Hébert and Lapierre see Reform as a problem as big as the Bloc. In short, reading Hébert and Lapierre describe Manning feels a little bit like David Cameron being described by Rafael Catalá Polo.

I’m being coy about my own feelings about separatism in Scotland, Catalonia and Quebec, and I’m doing that on purpose. It shouldn’t matter whether I personally support any of these movements. I take all three of them seriously, and it greatly frustrates me when people assume that of course I too think they are beyond the pale of reasonable discourse. Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre are too much the consummate professionals to make quite that error, but some aspects of The Morning After come surprisingly close. It’s a cliché among academics to say that because of globalisation national identity is in flux. I don’t disagree (clichés are clichés because they’re often mostly true), but it doesn’t follow that national identity is thus irrelevant, and it sure doesn’t follow that current assumptions about nationality (Catalans are basically Spanish! Québécois are basically Canadian!) are somehow fixed in stone. We’re in for more of these kinds of referenda, that much seems clear. Demonising or ignoring those who would vote “Yes” on them strikes me as the ultimate in reactionary politics. As for David Cameron and Preston Manning? The progressive sheen that the two of them acquire, let me tell you, is the unkindest cut of all.

Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University, and the former editor of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies. He is currently at work on an edition of the American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s writings for the Boulder literary magazine Rolling Stock.