The past, present, and future of Québec (Part Eight)
By Mark Wegierski
The October 30, 1995 referendum in Quebec could be seen as "a turning point that failed to turn". In a remarkably close result, with only a fraction of a percentage between them, the federalists won. (It might be pointed out that there were two other extremely close results in 1995 -- the striking down of the anti-divorce law in Ireland -- which has been interpreted as a signal for massive secularization of that society; and the election of the former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, over former Solidarity hero Lech Walesa, in Poland.)
In an unbelievably quick development attesting to the prevalent left-liberal climate of Canada, Jacques Parizeau was forced to resign in ignominy a day after his speech on the evening of October 30, where he had said that "60% of us [i.e. French-speakers] voted ‘Yes’", and that the defeat was due to "money and the ethnic vote". For this, he was called a "fascist", an "Adolf Hitler", and an "ethnic nationalist", in a massive wave of denunciation that swept the media countrywide, and was attacked even by some members of his own party.
Another casualty of the referendum defeat was Bernard Landry, Quebec's Deputy Premier, and Minister responsible for Immigration. He was forced to resign from his immigration duties after railing in private against immigrants on the night of the defeat -- which was apparently reported to the media by two immigrant hotel-workers.
Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard, who was widely acknowledged to be Quebec's most popular politician, then headed for the Premiership of Quebec (and leadership of the Parti Québécois).
Because of the tightness of the race in the last few weeks of the campaign, Jean Chretien had hastily promised, five days before the vote, to try again to push through the constitutional recognition of "Quebec's distinctiveness" -- the issue on which two previous constitutional agreements, the Meech Lake Accord (signed 1987; failed 1990) and the Charlottetown Agreements (1992), had foundered. After appearing to simply renege on his promise, he indeed brought down, in the Parliament of Canada, a recognition of this distinctiveness. However, the Parliament of Canada is no longer a sovereign body -- all its acts are referred to and interpreted by the Canadian Supreme Court in light of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which means that such a measure means substantially less than some might imagine.
Some rather jaundiced and exasperated English-Canadian traditionalists might well have thought that the "No" vote (i.e., No to Quebec sovereignty) was probably actually worse for English-speaking Canada, as a "Yes" vote might well have begun a process of salutary shock-therapy in this country. To wipe that perennial self-satisfied smirk off Chretien's and Liberal party-hacks' faces, the next day after a "Yes" victory, would have been hugely satisfying. Whatever else it was, the "No" victory was implicitly a vindication of the last thirty years of Canadian history, and of the Liberal vision which has so thoroughly dominated it. Chretien did indeed coast to another majority in 1997, in the afterglow of the "No" win. (Although that was certainly not the only element that contributed to his comparatively easy victory.)
From a more broadly world-historical perspective, some might argue that a "Yes" win could have been the catalyst for the restarting of true history in North America -- for the resumption of some kind of movement in history in North America, which was certainly preferable to the status-quo. The success of Quebec separatism might have had some unexpected impacts on the U.S. While on the one hand, it might well have strengthened Hispanic separatism in the U.S. South-West, on the other, it might have led to a questioning by the long-marginalized hinterlands of the U.S. just what kind of benefits they derive from being under the control of the centralizing, bicoastal elites.
Quebec's possible re-association with France and Europe might also have strengthened Europe as a whole, in its perennial attempts to resist North Americanization. At that time, it was not as clear as today in which direction the European Community (as I believe it was called then) was heading. Perhaps such a triumph for the EC might have positively altered the whole trajectory of Europe’s future development.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.