The rifts and uproar of Quebec's 1995 referendum

Paul Wells in Conversation: Chantal Hebert

Chantal Hébert’s new book gets Lucien Bouchard to spill the beans on the 1995 Quebec referendum


It’s easy to understand why Chantal Hébert would want to take a break from the sound of her own opinions. Opinion burnout is an occupational hazard among columnists: Whatever happens, there’s a voice in the back of your head that says, “OK, great, what do I think about this?” Hébert’s assorted regular gigs—Toronto Star, L’actualité, CBC’s At Issue panel—make her voice one of the most powerful in Canadian journalism. Yet when she set out to write her second book, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was, she decided to give her subjects the floor. “There is no thesis in the book, really,” she told me. “We were not setting out to portray chaos, or order, or to say, ‘Gee, this is what would have happened as opposed to that.’ On the contrary, I went out of my way, when presented with two scenarios, to not choose. I didn’t think I could choose. I didn’t want this to be a novel.”

In The Morning After, Hébert asks the political leaders who fought the 1995 referendum campaign to reveal what they would have done next if a majority had voted Yes. What she found was chaos—whether she was looking for it or not. Jacques Parizeau would have used the narrowest Yes majority to attempt to secede from Canada. Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont were campaigning at his side, but on breaks they were scheming privately to figure out how to stop him from carrying out his plan. They’d have needed luck. Parizeau was the premier of Quebec; they had no comparable institutional clout, despite Bouchard’s popularity. That power imbalance is starkly illustrated by Parizeau’s decision, revealed in Hébert’s book for the first time, to stop speaking to Bouchard in the campaign’s home stretch.

Bouchard is the key to the whole book. Halfway through the ’95 campaign, Parizeau announced that Bouchard would be Quebec’s “chief negotiator” with Canada after a Yes vote. The role was never explained, but it gave Bouchard a pretext for supplanting Parizeau as the most prominent campaigner in the Yes camp. Parizeau has written extensively about his post-referendum plans. Bouchard had never talked before. Writers as prominent as Michel C. Auger and Michel David had tried. He sent them away empty-handed.

Photograph by Blair Gable

Photograph by Blair Gable

“If we could get Lucien Bouchard to talk, it would be a good start,” Hébert says. “And if we couldn’t get Lucien Bouchard to talk—we didn’t tell him that—or if he told us nothing interesting, there wouldn’t be a book.”

He talked. It was worth the wait. “It was a shock to us that when Lucien Bouchard said, ‘We expected to win,’ the next sentence was not, ‘Here was our plan.’ It was, ‘Therefore Mr. Parizeau stopped returning my calls.’ We never saw that coming. We had never imagined that. It made us feel like little kids who believed in Santa Claus, to listen to that. That was when I realized, as a journalist, that we had never really kicked the tires of this ‘negotiator-in-chief’ title. And if we did, we would have found out that there was no mandate, no discussion, no agreement, no nothing.”

This led Hébert and her co-author, Jean Lapierre, a sometime member of Parliament who left the Liberals in 1990 to help Bouchard launch the Bloc Québécois, to change their minds about the Yes camp’s most prominent figures. “Of the three Yes leaders, it seemed to us that Jacques Parizeau was the best prepared for a Yes vote and for independence. And I think it’s fair to say that we came away from this thinking less of Lucien Bouchard—and more of Jacques Parizeau.”

Federalists needn’t be smug. Hébert characterizes the thinking of most politicians in the No camp as “kind of foggy. In particular the federal ministers from Quebec. I found them, collectively, to be flaky.” She makes a partial exception for Jean Chrétien, who didn’t tell her much but comes across, in other interviewees’ accounts, as a guy who was planning much more actively for a possible Yes victory than he’d previously acknowledged.

In a lot of ways, 1995 marked the end of a long period where being a Canadian political reporter meant writing every day about profound, even existential debates. These days it’s all boxing matches and the Wheat Board monopoly. “Do I miss the days when we could discuss substantial issues rather than when the issue of the day in question period is who can say the nastiest, stupidest thing about the other? Yes, of course I do,” she says. “I covered this issue alongside free trade, alongside the abortion debate. I watched votes on capital punishment.” Back then, “Parliament meant more. And the people in it seemed larger, rather than smaller, for being in it.”


Paul Wells in Conversation: Chantal Hebert

  1. “Of the three Yes leaders, it seemed to us that Jacques Parizeau was the best prepared for a Yes vote and for independence. And I think it’s fair to say that we came away from this thinking less of Lucien Bouchard—and more of Jacques Parizeau.”

    I can see that, still it’s odd no ones stops to consider the moral aspect – what did it say about Parizeau, a guy so ruthless he was prepared to use anyone in order to get what he thought QC needed. Sure it leaves LB looking callow and naive, he ought to have done his home work – this was the big leagues after all, they weren’t playing for marbles.
    Chantal’s book confirms what many cynics like me have always suspected – that underneath most big time political plays, once you drill down beyond the surface calm and brush aside the propaganda bs, if you can, there’s often pure blind panic and chaos.
    The last sentence is great – Parliament better back then because the participants took it more seriously, were more serious and rose to the occasion as Chantal says, seemed larger for it too? Under SH, following on after his mentor JC, we have sunk to their level of mediocrity…no body rocks the boat; no body dreams big; no body gets hurt. How sad. How parochial and dispiriting national politics[ and its coverage] has become. I suspect our best jounos would rather hide out on twitter to amuse themselves than actually write about it these days. Don’t blame them at all.

  2. I read Ms Hebert’s book with great interest. In the end, my only surprise was that such an intelligent commentator would get some things so wrong, or at least write them off as if they were not important, perhaps due to her own Centrist pitch. While on one hand she gave great cheers to Romanow (a Westerner who most of the West did not agree with in respect to his position on Meech, Charlottetown, etc ) being in agreement with the centre on these things, she seemed to write off Manning as a sort of nut case with extreme social distortion despite the fact that Reform/Alliance/Conservative following (as it developed) was just as potentially damaging to “Eastern Interests” as was the Quebec threat. For certain, the West would not put up with Ontario domineering in a new ROC. Could it be that the West was as fed up with Centrist arrogance (interpreted perhaps by the PQ as Anglo arrogance) as some Quebecers were? . The Premiers assent to Meech and Charlottetown can’t be construed as that of the majority of the people whom I clearly remember were by and large sick and tired of hearing the PQ/BQ complaints and treated the whole thing as a bargaining ploy to wrest more $ from the ROC. I also clearly recall that the West had lots of confidence in being able to sail its own ship in a variety of directions. I remember that the same large number of people voicing their regret that their aid could not easily go to the Maritimes in a new arrangement, that balancing having been one of the outstanding aspects of the Federal arrangement. But that has always been the weakness of the Federation – that the realities of the combined politics of Ontario and Quebec made a laugh out of the aspirations of the ROC. Canadians elsewhere were bought by their own tax money. As the population and economies of BC and Alberta surge there still has not been an adequate re-allotment of Commons seats and the division of powers in the laughable Senate continue to reflect the unreality of the distribution of both population and economic influence.
    My point is that the PQ and BQ thought they had a viable bitch when the West has had a far greater reason to complain. And in dispute with the writer of “The Rifts and Uproar. . ..” below, SH was never mentored by JC; SH probably could not stand the reflected stench from PET. –