Montreal correspondent Liz Warwick, 30, moved to Montreal from Cambridge, Mass., in 1992 to live with Eric Brunelle. Her new family was French-speaking and had long identified with the sovereignty movement. In the weeks leading to the Oct. 30 referendum, she found that the Brunettes still support independence—but much else has changed since Quebec’s last referendum in 1980.
It was May 20, 1980, and 11-year-old Annie Brunelle sat in front of the television watching the votes in the first Quebec referendum being tallied. For months, the campaign had been the focus of her family’s attention. “In our house, there was a lot of emotion about the referendum,” my sister-in-law recalls. “Whenever René Lévesque spoke, we would all cheer. When [No leader] Claude Ryan came on, we’d boo. It was very intense.” At school, Annie argued for the Yes side in her classes. Despite her age, she felt part of the debate: “In my mind and in my heart, I was always wearing those buttons that said Oui.”
On referendum day, Annie’s father, Roger, a high-school science teacher, and her older brother Eric, a student who had just turned 18, left the family’s modest three-bedroom town house in Ville St. Laurent, a northwest suburb of Montreal, to serve as scrutineers at a local polling station. While confident that the Oui would carry the day, Roger and Eric did not expect their neighbors to contribute to that victory. About a third of the area’s population had arrived from such places as Lebanon, Vietnam and Eastern Europe. Just under half the residents counted French as their mother tongue, and the district had voted almost exclusively Liberal for decades.
When the polls closed, the Brunelle family gathered at their home on Jean-Bouillet Avenue. They had agreed to be filmed for a local television special on the referendum. When the film crew arrived, the cameraman remarked that the vote was going to be 60-40 for the No. Annie remembers the adults around her laughing in disbelief. A few hours later, his guess became reality. With the cameras rolling, the family stared at the final numbers. “My mother was crying in my arms,” Annie says. “I was crying. It was so emotional.” The next day, she learned that the family’s grief had been broadcast live. “All my friends from school had watched us on TV. And this girl came up and said, ‘I saw you crying last night on the news. I never knew it was so important to you.’ ”
Fifteen years have passed, and this year’s referendum is also important to Annie and her family. But this time, the debates are muted, the feelings kept in check. Marriage has expanded the family to include a proud federalist and a transplanted American. There is a sense that arguing will not change anyone’s mind, so a determined silence about politics reigns at our occasional family suppers.
Yet the echoes of 1980 remain. Feelings have shifted, arguments have changed, but the choice for most remains Yes. This time, though, it is a guarded Yes. A pessimistic Yes. A Yes that speaks to 15 years of arguments, constitutional battles, failed accords and an ever-diminishing hope of a country called Quebec. Now 27, Annie still carries those Oui buttons in her heart. An elementary school teacher and part-time aerobics instructor, she says she will vote Yes to protect the French language and culture. Yet, curled next to her husband, Joe Maglione, in the living room of their immaculate one-bedroom apartment, Annie laughs about how complicated her Yes has become. She is married to a self-described Italian-Canadian who will vote No. They knew from their first blind date that they would never agree on the Quebec issue, so they rarely discuss it.
Joe, a 30-year-old fitness instructor and private trainer, grew up in a tightly knit Italian community in northeast Montreal. His parents spoke Italian, French and English at home, and he attended English school. He works at a gym in east-end Montreal where the clientele is almost exclusively francophone. Even they, he says, do not want separation because the economic costs are too high. “This province and the rest of Canada will suffer,” he says.
Annie agrees with his assessment. “If ever people say Yes, it will take at least 10 years for the province to adjust,” she acknowledges. However, Annie is ready to make the sacrifice. “I think it’s easier for me to accept that adjustment period than someone who deep down doesn’t feel like a French Québécois. That’s why I understand why an English-speaking Canadian living here might feel afraid.”
Like his sister, Stéphane Brunelle, 29, will vote Yes to strengthen the French language. “Sovereignty is the key to the survival of the French language,” he says from his temporary home near Washington. Since January, Stéphane has been travelling with the Cirque du Soleil, working as a production office manager. He will vote by mail, but admits to feeling removed from the debate. Born in 1965, after the start of the Quiet Revolution, Stéphane says he never faced the kind of language discrimination his parents did. “Nobody ever told me to ‘speak white’ or called me a frog,” he says. Yet, as a teenager, he read enough to be convinced that Quebec needed to protect its language and culture.
In fact, Stéphane felt so strongly that during the 1980 referendum he offered to sit as a representative of the Yes side at a local polling station. No one inquired about his age, so the 14-year-old became one of the youngest people ever to oversee an election. He took the job seriously—perhaps too seriously, he says today. “I was a total pain in the ass,” he recalls with a laugh. “I kept asking everyone for identification papers.” Like his sister, Stéphane remembers the powerful feelings surrounding the referendum. “My family was all in favor of sovereignty. We talked about it a lot at home. There was so much passion. I was really, really confident we’d win.”
After the poll closed, Stéphane raced home. Walking in, he saw his parents sitting in front of the television, crying. “I knew we’d lost,” he says. “It was very impressive for me to see how hard my parents took it. They were really sad and frustrated. And I felt that we had lost something important.”
Stéphane says his Yes vote probably will not bring back what was lost 15 years ago. “I doubt we’re going to win. All the politicians and business people talk about is competitiveness and the global markets.” That focus on economics, he says, does not inspire people to work towards the Yes side’s vision of an independent country.
Stéphane and his partner, 38-year-old Lyne Leblanc, are expecting a child in April. They agree that without a Yes vote, their child may struggle with the same issues. “The history of Quebec proves that there will always be this fight for the recognition from the rest of Canada and the rest of the world that we are a nation,” Stéphane says. “If it’s not settled this time, it will come back in 15, 20, 25, maybe 50 years.”
The sense that a resolution to the Quebec-Canada problem hovers tantalizingly out of reach frustrates my husband, Eric, 33. President of a small computer company, Eric has been a Parti Québécois member for 15 years and a member of the Bloc Québécois for five. He has marched in every St. Jean-Baptiste Day parade since 1990, except last year when we married on June 24. He will vote Yes, but with a deep sense of pessimism. He worries about what will happen if the No side wins. He says the past 15 years, in particular, have created serious rifts between Quebec and Canada. Business contacts have told him about people who will not buy products labelled Made in Quebec. And when Eric taps into the Internet, he finds news groups like can.politics and can.français filled with messages, usually from English-Canadians, calling Quebecers “whiners” and “traitors.” “The hatred is shocking,” he says. “That didn’t exist in 1980. Imagine another 15 years like that.”
Eric has little patience for people who dither over the costs of voting one way or another. “The question is: are we an independent people?” he argues. “I am not Canadian, I never was Canadian, and I never will be Canadian.”
For Monique Brunelle, 58, a retired school teacher and administrator, and Roger Brunelle, 66, who is also retired, the vision they had 15 years ago of a proud, strong, independent Quebec remains compelling. Seated in our living room, sipping coffee on a sunny autumn afternoon, they occasionally lean in towards me to make a point. “I want a society that is ours, that recognizes what we are, that allows us to be faithful to our roots,” Monique says.
Yet both worry that the economic arguments of the No side will carry the day. In 1980, Roger canvassed the neighborhood, answering people’s questions. “People were afraid,” he says, about losing their jobs, about losing their pensions, about an economic crisis. Those fears have intensified today, he says. In a culture where money rules, Monique and Roger say it is hard for the Yes side to compete.
“What’s the fear?” Monique demands. “It’s the fear of losing money because the one thing that counts today is money. What we are—our difference, our culture, our language, our personality—comes way behind money.” She pauses, then adds firmly, “You don’t sell your identity for money.”
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