The 1995 referendum: What would have come after a Yes

Paul Wells on Chantal Hébert’s important new book



A team of Saskatchewan officials worked quietly to develop contingency plans in the event of a Yes vote in the 1995 Quebec referendum — options that included Saskatchewan following Quebec out of Canada, a new book reveals.

Roy Romanow, the premier of Saskatchewan at the time, never told his full cabinet about the secret committee’s work, Romanow told Chantal Hébert, author of The Morning After: The Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was, to be published by Knopf Canada on Sept. 2. Maclean’s has obtained a copy of the book.

“Filed under the boring title of Constitutional Contingencies — a choice intended to discourage curiosity — [the Saskatchewan committee’s] work was funded off the books, outside the provincial Treasury Board process, the better to ensure its secrecy,” Hébert writes.

The committee considered a lot of possibilities for the chaotic period Romanow anticipated after a Yes vote — including Saskatchewan seceding from Canada; a Western union of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia; abandoning the Canadian dollar to use the U.S. greenback; and even annexation of Saskatchewan, and perhaps other provinces, to the United States. “In the eventuality of a Yes vote, clearly you need to examine all your options,” Romanow says in the book.

The revelation that Romanow had set a contingency committee to work is one of several surprises in the book by Hébert, a columnist for the Toronto Star and Le Devoir L’actualité [you’d think I’d get that right on the first try – pw] and one of the country’s most prominent political commentators. She wrote The Morning After with assistance from Jean Lapierre, a former Liberal and Bloc Québécois MP and a leading Quebec pundit. The premise of the book is simple: they interviewed nearly 20 key or peripheral players in the 1995 referendum, from Jacques Parizeau to Jean Chrétien to Preston Manning and Frank McKenna, and asked them what they would have done if the Yes side had been declared the winner of the referendum. The resulting slim volume is the most complete account yet of the secret strategizing on both sides of that historic battle.

What the authors found was chaos. Neither the separatist Yes camp nor the federalist No coalition had any coherent plan for how to deal with a Yes, and at the highest echelons on both sides, leaders were working at cross purposes. Disarray in both the Yes and No camps would only have gotten worse after a numerical Yes victory.

This disarray is clearest in the Yes camp, whose leaders were Jacques Parizeau, the Parti Québécois premier who led the referendum effort; Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc Québécois leader who was promoted, partway through the campaign, as “chief negotiator” for a seceding Quebec and de facto lead campaigner, demoting Parizeau; and Mario Dumont, the short-lived Action Démocratique party’s only member in the National Assembly.

Parizeau was dead set on using the slimmest of Yes margins to take Quebec out of Canada. The other two partners spent the weeks before the referendum trying to figure out how to stop him.

Dumont tells Hébert and Lapierre that he and Bouchard “had had conversations about the fact that it could become necessary to stop Parizeau if he [tried to] simply break up from Canada on the basis of a 50-percent-plus-1 mandate and a unilateral declaration of independence.”

It’s not obvious what they could have done to stop him. Bouchard and Dumont had both signed an agreement on June 12, 1995 — an agreement mentioned in the referendum question — that explicitly gave Parizeau the right to declare sovereignty if he decided Quebec-Canada negotiations were stalemated.

And, Parizeau tells Hébert, he had plans to ensure the negotiations went the way he wanted, not the way the equivocating Bouchard hoped. Bouchard had a title — “chief negotiator” — but no mandate, either verbal or in writing, and on Oct. 30, 1995, the day of the referendum, he couldn’t even get Parizeau to return his calls. Parizeau, meanwhile, retained the right to appoint the entire rest of Quebec’s negotiating delegation. “It would have essentially been people whom I trusted completely,” he says. “I knew exactly which of them would be a good fit for the job.” Officials with a mandate to fly to foreign capitals to spread Parizeau’s version of events “already had their plane tickets” even as Quebecers were voting, Parizeau said.

Against Parizeau’s advantages — the title of premier, the letter of the law and an army of civil servants — Bouchard and Dumont had the hope that popular sentiment and personal connections would somehow break their way. “I wonder what the international community would have made of the news that two of the three leaders of the Yes camp did not interpret the result in the same way as Parizeau,” Dumont says. In one of several cases of apparently deep-seated wishful thinking among Hébert’s and Lapierre’s interview subjects, Dumont imagines a Yes victory would have led to a quick Quebec election that would have served his own party’s purposes nicely. “I would have won 10 seats instead of just my own.”

Related: An excerpt from Hebert’s book

Bouchard, as befits a chief negotiator with no mandate, no committee and nobody answering at the premier’s office, was left alone with his prodigious imagination. He tells Hébert and Lapierre he expected a Yes victory would lead to a second referendum at the insistence of Jean Chrétien’s federal government, and that he would have urged Parizeau to hold such a vote. He thinks a Yes would have led, not to secession but to “a deal” that would “certainly be better than what we have now.” He hoped the premiers of other provinces would be at the table because “I was friends with the premiers, really friends with all of them.”

The No side, meanwhile, was a comparable chorus of mutual incomprehension. Preston Manning, who as Reform Party leader had the third-largest caucus in the House of Commons in 1995, tells Hébert that if the Yes side had won a majority, “I expected [Jean Chrétien] to resign on that night or shortly thereafter.” If Chrétien had insisted he was still the prime minister, “You would have had Western members leave Parliament and not come back because it would have been considered illegitimate.”

In challenging Chrétien’s legitimacy as prime minister, Manning could perhaps have counted on a surprising ally: Brian Tobin, the Newfoundlander who was Chrétien’s fisheries minister. “You’re only the boss if you can say to the Governor General that I have at my back the majority of the House,” Tobin says in the book. “The notion that there would be a bunch of Quebecers negotiating with a bunch of Quebecers is false. It would never happen.”

Were Tobin and other Liberals planning to remove Chrétien as leader of a continuing Liberal government? Well, no. In fact it is hardly clear from the book what Tobin was thinking, if anything. “I don’t think he would have offered to quit or to leave and I don’t think caucus would have asked him to,” he tells Hébert, “but I think the caucus and the cabinet would very much have wanted to be engaged in what the strategy was on a go-forward basis.”

The last interview in the book is with Jean Chrétien, and like Parizeau he comes off as a man who had thought options through while others, including some on his own side, were relying on guesses. “I had a number of cards that I ended up not having to play,” he tells Hébert, but she has learned of a few. Frank McKenna, then the premier of New Brunswick, reveals that Chrétien had called him several days before the vote to ask if he would quit that job to serve in a “cabinet of national unity” after a Yes vote. McKenna told Chrétien he would.

This is significant to Hébert, who refrains from analysis for much of the book, letting her subjects tell their own story. But in the Chrétien chapter she points out that he was weighing possibilities and options for a Yes scenario in private with close associates, even in the early stages of a campaign when the No was far ahead in polls.

Manning planned to challenge Chrétien’s legitimacy, but Chrétien had done the math: the Liberals had three times as many seats outside Quebec as Reform did. As for Reform boycotting Parliament, “If the Reform had left the House, I would have had an easier time,” Chrétien says.

A reader leaves Hébert’s and Lapierre’s book with the overwhelming impression that with few exceptions — Parizeau, Manning, Chrétien, Romanow — politicians of every stripe managed to bring less thoughtfulness to a campaign over Canada’s fate than they do to many more mundane questions. It is a mug’s game to guess who would have won, in the inevitable confrontations between Parizeau and Bouchard, Chrétien and Manning. It’s not clear that anyone would have.


The 1995 referendum: What would have come after a Yes

  1. Really appreciate this review, I have placed my order for when the book comes out.

    Hopefully Chantal writes an insightful, retrospective treatise into Stephen Harper some day, it would be fascinating to understand that complex man a little better at some point.

    • for when the book comes out. redundant

      “Hopefully Chantal writes an insightful, retrospective treatise into Stephen Harper some day, it would be fascinating to understand that complex man a little better at some point.” redundant is so weak a word sometimes……….

      • I feel the same about the word pedant. By the way, you need to pay more attention to the use of quotation marks and capitalization.

  2. Wow. I don’t care if this is an actual review or just native advertising; I had no idea that with all the vision, fear and promises passed around in 1995 from both sides, there was no real plan for a Yes vote. I look forward to a fascinating read.

    • Actual review. Well, not really a review; actual news story with a little commentary every few paragraphs.

  3. The results of the Quebec provincial election really killed her potential book sales. Only diehard political junkies will buy it.

    Plus, she’s going up against Justin’s tome, which is a must for the coffee table in Rosedale salons.

    Chantal should have swept up the hair clippings from Justin’s latest haircut, and offered a strand with every book sale.

  4. It is my understanding that Hebert used to be a columnist for Le devoir, l’actualite and the Star up until fairly recently, so I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much over not getting that right on your first try.

    • Though Ms Hebert no longer writes for Le Devoir this organization has no problem to publish this morning an article on the book titled “La Saskatchewan était prête à se séparer à son tour” (Saskatchewan was ready to separate”. From ready to consider all options, as Mr. Romanow reveals, to ready to secede as claimed by Le Devoir. Would the lack of journalistic professionalism at Le Devoir explain why Ms. Hebert no longer works there?

  5. It’s fascinating[and scary] to ponder how true that old idiom about Canada working better in theory than reality[something like that].Cept just about no one knows what the theory is. We always seem so complacent that “that” could never happen here…well, it can and it nearly did. And it seems many of our politicos hadn’t a clue what to do about it, if it did. The very fact someone even thought for more than a nano second about SK seceding proves the point. Where the hell would they have gone? Packed their bags and moved to the Caribbean! It’s the paucity of vision, its narrow focus and small mindedness in what seems to be so many quarters – from Preston to Dumont, that leaves a bit of a hollow feeling in the gut of anyone who still believes this is one country. Still, i guess that’s the way the world is – messy, shallow, self absorbed and mostly self interested.
    Chretien nearly let the national canoe turn over…thank goodness it would still have most likely been up to him to get it turned over again and got it bailed out as best he could. Meanwhile the others would have been arguing over whether we ought to use a cowboy hat or a toque to get the water out again. Sure enough someone would’ve suggested a canoe was a bad idea anyway – let’s try a raft this time; that way it doesn’t matter if you’re in the front or the back – everyone can pretend their skipper.
    What a country. You got to love it. Thank goodness we still have to have strong institutions like the SCoC…they’re more durable and dependable than politicians anyway.

    • A nation is an artificial construct…made up of regions and tribes. And when things get tough we tend to split along those lines again…unless we’ve made a genuine effort to mingle….which we have not.

      Canada is still 10 separate countries, not one.

      • True enough. Which is why it should worry us when a national leader like Harper says something as idiotic as it not mattering whether we have ten countries[ or govts] or one, as long as it reflects the kind of values he most prizes. He’s free to think so, but otherwise keep his yap shut on the matter.
        I’m old fashioned enough to still believe national unity is still the principle job of the PM. And that can’t be achieved merely by keeping taxes down and pumping out as much toxic political rhetoric as he think necessary in order to make sure he has no credible rivals or vision of the country of any kind. It needs someone who actually believes in the mythology and totality of this country and works actively at keeping it together.

        • Yeah we need to be getting bigger, not smaller….but right out of the gate there was Saskatchewan [of all places] heading for the hills.

          • Heh! Heading for those hills must be part of the SK folklore by now. Just like AB wouldn’t mind buyin’ up some of that BC ocean and foreshore – in fact it is busy doing that.

      • KCM2, just look how Canada was built and how each province has been populated over history. National unity is a hollow concept when speaking of Canada, apart from Quebec’s federalist politicians, especially from Liberal Party of Canada. They try to sell the illusion of a bilingual country from coast to coast where French Canadians would be on the same foot as their English counterparts.

        Right from the start, the BNAA of 1867 was set on a misunderstanding. John A. MacDonald and most “Confederation Fathers” believed this agreement founded the basis of a single country from coast to coast with specific and limited powers were given to its constituents (provinces and territories) while Georges-Étienne Cartier (Lower Canada PM) thought this was an arrangement of relatively autonomous states sharing common powers to an upper government. What Cartier didn’t know was that a delegation of English Montreal businessmen led by Alexander T. Galt and Thomas D’Arcy McGee went to London shortly before to have special clauses added to the constitution text to protect their rights to use their language in all public institutions and get education in English. This explains how the English minority in Quebec is protected while almost all French minorities in the rest of Canada lost their rights to their own institutions since 1867.

        Ontario used to be the most important and influencing province in Canada as it has been built in opposition to the French Canada after the Conquest War of 1760. As French Canadians were far more populous than the English loyalists who went upnorth further to the 13-State American Revolution, the British colonial government could not grant real democracy and responsible government before 1859. All English immigration had to be concentrated in Upper Canada (Ontario) to prevent the establishment of a French republic in Lower Canada Quebec).

        The Maritime Provinces were the first English settlements outside of what became the United States of America. They spread around Halifax and chased the Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755. The rest of Acadians had to take an oath to Britain’s king and made the province of New Brunswick. They already had their own history before joining BNAA in 1867.

        The Western Provinces were born following settlement of immigrants from many European countries at the end of the 19th Century. While Manitoba became a Canadian province to prevent riot of the Metis before they were overwhelmed by newcomers from Ontario, the RCMP and the Transcanada Railway construction helped the European immigrants to chase Indian tribes to create two additional provinces (Saskatchewan and Alberta). Discovery of oïl in Alberta lead to the building of a huge industry controled by american interests. As the four western provinces (BC, AB, SK and MB) have large natural resources (lumber, oïl, grains, cattle) and found a larger market down South, they have developped their own identity and want to prevent the federal government to dictate its own policies.

        British Columbia (on the Pacific coast) and Newfoundland (on the Atlantic coast) alike Maritimes had their own history. Both of them were built from a settlement of English comers. The first joined the BNAA (like Prince Edward Island) further to the promise of being connected to the center provinces by the Transcanada Railroad. As the settlement’s growth before connection shared more economical interests with the western states of the USA, British Columbia feels closer to the Americans than the center provinces (Ontario/Quebec) who are perceived as exploiters or the country’s pets.

        Newfoundland is another distinct society from the rest of Canada as they had their own identity until 1949, being a relatively autonomous British settlement on the edge of Canada. Federal politicians corrupted Joey Smallwood and tricked the process to win the referendum for joining Canada.

        As you can see, it is an almost impossible task to hold such an heterogeneous assembly of provinces together and make them agree for common politics. National unity is then artificially maintained by a handfull of big businessmen who are rich enough to plug their favourite men in the key governmental functions. All the rest is pure bullshit to hide their genuine goals.

        • Thx for that. I think i may go hide in my closet now for a day or two with a bottle of good vodka :)
          In the immortal words of one of our PMs…i guess we might as well just wrap up this conference [or country] and go home, as nothing good can obviously ever come of it. That’s one view of the country i guess. Just a little too dark and cynical for my taste.

    • No, no, no.

      It’s “Canada is a country that works in practice, but not in theory.”

      The point of that is that we actually get along quite well until we try to rationalize things and systematize them.

      So Mulroney trying to bring Quebec in with Meech Lake almost led to the breakup of the country, whereas Chretien ignoring the constitution and pushing through the Clarity Act got stuff to simmer down. And now Harper refusing to engage at all with the separatists has nearly killed off the movement.

      Don’t try to theorize Canada, just live here. And if any federal leader comes forward proposing to have largescale ten-province talks over constitutional amendments, throw a burlap sack over his/her head and toss him/her over the side. The SCC effectively amends the constitution when it feels like it with its decisions. It can be frustrating, but it’s probably better than the alternatives.

      • Well i suspected i had muddled that quote up a bit. Thx for clarifying.

        Sorry but there’s no evidence that i’m aware of that Harper’s open federalism or refusal to engage with separatists has led to their decline. His policies have pretty much led to him probably becoming the least popular PM in modern times within QC – if not any time. I wont pretend i have a clue as to why the separatist threat seems to be at a very low point[ other than their incompetent politicians espousing it] but your conclusion seems nothing more than wishful thinking. All the evidence we do have would suggest otherwise. You forget the man pretty much chose this course when he elected to brand the attempted coalition as being some kind of deal with the devil between separatist traitors and socialists. His numbers in QC have never recovered. Some have speculated that with the extra seats in play in ’15 he may be the first PM to ever attempt another majority with little or no support within QC. Some feat of national unity that. Pull the other one, it has bells on. Allowing the threads and cultural ties that bind this country together to fray to the point of non existence is no record to proud of in my view. Any fool can let this country keep on drifting apart by not convening any kind of a meeting of the provincial leaders under one roof. It takes a true leader to attempt to reconcile its disparate parts, and not pretend everything is just hunky dory if we just don’t ever talk to each other, or have embarrassing political arguments in public forums.Or debate the state of the nation Heaven forbid the families should openly feud at times. Hey, if you never call any family gatherings no one can claim dad’s ever wrong, can they? JT just about has this guy pegged – his biggest sin is having no aspirations, ambitions or dreams for the country. Or none he is willing to have questioned before the nation and it’s representatives.

        . “The SCC effectively amends the constitution when it feels like it with its decisions”

        I have absolutely no idea what you mean by that assertion…it certainly isn’t factual imo.The court doesn’t take action merely “when it feels like it.” And i don’t subscribe to fanciful notions of the courts making law in this country…that’s just a political code for i want to wish away 1982 and PET’s silly charter.
        In cases where the courts do appear intrusive, it can invariably be put down to Parliament not doing it’s job and the courts basically throwing the ball back in their court in the hopes they will get on with it without breaching the charter.

  6. This book and this text are truly revealing of the individuals who marked that historical day. On the YES side, one can see that Jacques Parizeau was the only one who was worth of a statesman, the former PQ leader being surrounded by weak peoples or opportunists ready to fly away at first opportunity. Parizeau was the only one who knew where he was going and who he can trust to carry on. On the NO side, it is even more pathetic as we can see that Quebec’s federalists were merely seen as second-class Canadians who earn respect only when they can control their independantist counterparts.

    This story only demonstrates one thing: Quebec’s federalist politicians are condemned to be Canada’s double-faces. Whatever they do, they will be shot at by a large part of the peoples they pretend to represent. For the Quebec’s independantists, they are viewed as traitors or collaborators to ennemy at worst, at most they are considered as unreliable or second-class Quebecers. For Canadians, at most they are questionable allies or second-class Canadians, at worst they are traitors or opportunists who try to eat in two plates.

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