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Excerpt: The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was

Excerpt: <I>The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was</I>

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer with The Toronto Star, a guest columnist for Le Devoir and L’Actualité, and a weekly participant on the political panel At Issue on CBC TV’s The National. A prolific journalist who is passionate about Canadian politics―particularly in relation to Quebec―Chantal speaks with authority and passion on public policy and other matters of national importance. Last week, Chantal’s new book, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was, was published to great acclaim. We’re happy to be able to share the following except with you:

In the saga of the 1995 referendum, all roads inevitably lead back to Jean Chrétien . . . and to a barrage of smoke. Those who know the former prime minister will not be surprised that two decades after the fact he still insists on keeping his post-referendum cards close to his chest. Or that he says he did not think out all his possible moves ahead of the vote.

“I had a number of cards that I ended up not having to play. I do not like to discuss them. There would have been quite a number of options at my disposal in the event of a Yes vote. But I wasted no time on them. That would have been for later if needed.”

A veil of silence obscures our view for only so long. No fabric is immune to the wear and tear brought on by time and so it is with the cloak in which Jean Chrétien continues to wrap himself and his contingency plans.

Based on the referendum recollections of the federalists interviewed for this book, one could be forgiven for thinking that the prime minister had a stand-in speaking by rote on stage while the real Chrétien watched, plotted and agonized from behind the curtain. The insouciant Jean Chrétien who brushes off Preston Manning’s calls for a different referendum approach, and is deaf to similar appeals from a friend and ally such as Roy Romanow, sounds strikingly different from the one who uses slang to discuss his referendum angst with his nephew in Washington.

The prime minister who for so long was content to tell Canadians that all is going well in Quebec does not come across as the same person who, even before the Quebec campaign started or the polls soured for his side, was discussing the aftermath of a possible federalist defeat with Bob Rae at Harrington Lake.

The Chrétien who keeps his cabinet in the dark about his morning-after plans and frowns at the idea that his officials would spend time drafting such plans is hard to reconcile with the one who phones Premier Frank McKenna to ask if he will join a national unity cabinet.

Among the federalist politicians we talked to, it was those in closest contact with the prime minister — Bob Rae, Frank McKenna, Raymond Chrétien —who were most convinced on the morning of the referendum that they should brace for the worst.

In Chrétien’s own interview, I encountered predictably more of the happy-go-lucky persona that he so likes to present to the world and less of the introspective political animal that he really is. To see evidence of the true conjurer at work, one must take stock of the gap between his public words and his private interactions.

Today for instance, Jean Chrétien glibly claims that he personally would have done well after a Yes vote. “I used to tell people that they did not need to worry about my fate if Quebec seceded. I would tell them that I would buy a nice cheap house in Westmount, open a big law office downtown and anyone in the rest of Canada who would have needed to do business with Quebec would have called on my services. Because a sovereign Quebec would have needed to have links with the rest of Canada, and as someone who had one foot on each side, I would have been the best person to hire. I used to say: ‘If Quebec separates don’t worry about me, I will be flush with money.’ ”

But on the night of the referendum the prime minister’s mood was not so light. His body language at the time of his last campaign speech in Verdun and on the night of the vote itself fooled no one, least of all his fellow Quebecers. He looked like a ghost of his usual, confident self. Chrétien went live on national television late on October 30 and, although the federalists did not lose the vote, he looked as shaken as Canadians had ever seen him.

Shortly after the Quebec referendum a home invasion at 24 Sussex Drive rattled him further. Over the same period, he conducted a failed meeting with Ontario premier Mike Harris in a manner that oozes more post-traumatic stress than political foresight. It would take some time for the old Chrétien to return.

In February 2006, Chrétien (briefly) throttled an anti- poverty demonstrator at an event in Gatineau, Quebec. The fact that his impulsive gesture played to rave reviews in many Canadian quarters must have told him something not only about the state of his own nerves but also about the hardened post-referendum mindset of the country. It must have confirmed his worst fears about the backlash that would have attended a Quebec Yes vote, but also boosted his confidence that he could get back in the country’s good books despite what was widely criticized as a lacklustre referendum performance.

Handed a Yes vote, Chrétien would have seen his options essentially boiled down to two — neither of which was guaranteed to help Canada or Quebec arrive at a mutually satisfying resolution to the crisis.

He could attempt to slow the Yes train down long enough that he could try to switch it onto another track, one that led to a destination other than the break-up of Canada; or, failing that, long enough to sketch out a roadmap to guide Canada and Quebec through uncharted constitutional territory; or, if all else failed, long enough to hand the controls of a functioning federal government to someone else. In theory, as prime minister, Chrétien was in the driver’s seat. But no one — starting with him — could anticipate how quickly the acid of a Yes vote would corrode the lines that connected him to the political gears driving the federal government.

The alternative was to accept responsibility for the defeat on that night, resign and let events take their course without him. Under that scenario, the other Quebecers who occupied key positions in his government would presumably have been morally obliged to follow suit. Quebec MPs such as Paul Martin at finance and André Ouellet at foreign affairs would have had to take Chrétien’s cue and leave the scene.

But departures might not have stopped there. In 1995 the Quebec presence at the top of the federal pyramid extended far beyond the elected politicians who made up the Liberal government. The Clerk of the Privy Council, Jocelyne Bourgon, was a Quebecer and she ran the federal public service. Antonio Lamer, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was also from Quebec, as were scores of other ambassadors besides Raymond Chrétien in Washington. After a Yes, all those roles would have had strategic importance.

Faced with a hemorrhage of Quebec blood, the ROC (Rest of Canada) politicians who would have inherited the leadership of the government would have had to contend with a sudden and unprecedented vacuum at the top, and it would be happening at the most uncertain hour in Canada’s history.

Jean Chrétien will not discuss what tentative conclusions he reached as he contemplated the way forward after a federalist defeat. If he had his way, he would have you believe that he hadn’t troubled himself to reach any. His call to McKenna about a national unity cabinet suggests otherwise. It also suggests that in the face of a narrow Yes vote he would not have given up his job or conceded defeat for federalism without a fight.

On Chrétien’s watch, what was good for the Liberal Party in Quebec was routinely considered to be good for the country. On that basis, the former prime minister once described showering Liberal-friendly Quebec ridings (including his own) with job-creation money as part of a day’s work on behalf of Canadian unity. That rationale would never have been as central to his thinking as on the morning after a Yes vote, when keeping Canada together and keeping himself in power would have gone hand-in­ hand for Jean Chrétien.

The other 17 men and women we interviewed for this book had very different and sometimes conflicting perspectives on the post-Yes federal environment. But to some of them, every possible outcome following a Yes vote would lead to asking whether Chrétien’s leadership of the country and the government should survive. That was particularly true of the ROC politicians, regardless of their partisan affiliation or the level of government that they represented.

The leaders of the sovereignist camp agreed on little else, but they concurred that the odds were low of Jean Chrétien surviving a defeat. Over on the other side, his own nephew, Raymond, also thought his uncle’s days as prime minister (as well as his own days as ambassador) might be numbered.

Jean Chrétien agrees that there was a real possibility that a Yes vote would have terminated his political career. He does not rule out that he could have resigned after a referendum defeat, but not right away and possibly not unless he was under great pressure to do so.

“I might have decided that it was a personal defeat. I might have washed my hands of the entire affair and quit. But I don’t give up easily and quitting is not in my nature. I certainly would not have resigned the next day and said: ‘Vive le Québec libre.’ That would not have happened.”

On the issue of the legitimacy of his Liberal government after a Yes vote, Chrétien is even more categorical: “I was a francophone prime minister, but I held 98 of 99 Ontario seats. No one was more legitimate than I was. My base was not in Quebec, where I had 20 MPs. I was prime minister because of Ontario, because of Atlantic Canada, and I even held seats in Alberta.”

Reform Party leader Preston Manning has suggested that his MPs would have walked out of Parliament if Chrétien stonewalled his calls for a post-Yes federal election. The former prime minister maintains that he could have continued to govern in the absence of the leading federalist opposition party:

“If the Reform had left the House, I would have had an easier time. You are legitimate until you quit. Manning might have dreamt of becoming prime minister once Quebec was gone. But I had a majority government. It would have been a big battle that I am just as happy to have avoided.”

Brian Tobin — as a former member of Chrétien’s ministerial team — contends that there would have needed to be a swift rebalancing of the cabinet in favour of non-Quebec ministers like himself. Chrétien does not disagree that his ROC ministers could have made his life difficult. But he believes their pre-vote deliberations had more to do with a bad case of nerves than a serious plan to curtail his political discretion.

“I heard about their meeting. It did not concern me. Had they all resigned, it would have been another matter. I too was not happy when I saw the polls in the last week of the campaign. I too worried.”

On the more specific issue of the chain of events set in motion by a Yes vote and the prospect of secession negotiations, he is convinced that with or without him in the picture, the issue of Quebec partition would have quickly surfaced under the impetus of the Quebec aboriginal people. “The First Nations have a large capital of sympathy. It would have been difficult for Quebec to say we do not respect the popular will of the First Nations to remain with Canada.”

Lucien Bouchard, Mario Dumont and Roy Romanow, among others, anticipated or feared that in the face of a federal refusal to engage in secession talks Jacques Parizeau would quickly proceed to his Plan B: a unilateral declaration of Quebec’s independence. Paul Martin, Brian Tobin and Raymond Chrétien said the possibility of a Quebec UDI was one of the few scenarios that the federal government had actually discussed and tried to prepare for.

For his part, Jean Chrétien is convinced that Canada would not have lacked for international help to fend off a Quebec bid for de facto international recognition. “What would other countries have done? They all had their own problems with national minorities. Before taking on Canada, they would have thought twice. Even the French would have.”

As for the campaign itself and the unexpectedly dangerous turn that it took in its final weeks, Chrétien readily admits that it was his call to not have officials work on contingency plans for a federal loss.

“In 1980 a committee had worked on contingency plans. I had refused to see them. I was not interested in negative scenarios. I had a job to do and it was to win the referendum. I had told Trudeau as much.”

Chrétien remains convinced that he would have won the referendum hands down, except for two interconnected developments. The recasting of Lucien Bouchard as the star of the No campaign was one. “Before Bouchard came in, we were leading by 20 points. It turned the campaign around. When one campaigns with a cane, it works,” says Chrétien — a clear reference to the late NDP leader Jack Layton, who was visibly ailing during the 2011 federal election campaign that saw his party sweep Quebec.

Chrétien argues that the combination of Bouchard’s appeal with a profoundly ambiguous referendum question made for an almost irresistible mix. “Even I could perhaps have voted yes to such a question. People would tell me: ‘I don’t want to separate but I want a new deal.’ For many, the question meant that Lucien Bouchard would negotiate a better deal for Quebecers, one that might even free them from paying taxes to the federal government.”

Jean Chrétien is anything but the kind of political retiree who wears regrets on his sleeve. If anything, he is predisposed to blow his own horn. But if he were to second-guess his handling of the 1995 referendum, it sounds as if it would be specifically on the matter of the question. “I had always believed that the question was a big problem. At 85 words, it was long and confusing.”

In fact, Chrétien initially fought hard behind the scenes to place the referendum question under a microscope. A federal committee even drafted a text to dissect it line by line and to poke holes into the notion that Quebecers were voting for a future partnership with Canada rather than for separation. The prime minister wanted that text sent to every Quebec household above his and Daniel Johnson’s signature. Chrétien’s Quebec lieutenant, Andre Ouellet, says the Quebec Liberals took weeks to respond to the federal proposal. At some point Chrétien lost patience and threatened to do it without them. But he backed off when the Quebec No committee eventually offered to produce an annotated version of the PQ’s draft bill on sovereignty to highlight the fact that, with or without a partnership, Quebec would separate after a Yes victory. According to Ouellet, the document that resulted from the compromise between the prime minister and the Johnson camp was never widely circulated.

Many of the federal and non-Quebec politicians we interviewed shared frustration at having been kept at bay by the Quebec No camp. Jean Chrétien acknowledges the awkwardness of a referendum structure that is deliberately designed to revolve strictly around the National Assembly and the provincial political arena. “The difficulty is that the leader of the No camp is the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, while the real adversary is the prime minister. So you are in but you are still on the sidelines.”

As it happens, the 1995 Yes camp struggled with the same challenge when it realized that the referendum rules consigned Lucien Bouchard — by far its best salesman — to the back of the store in the House of Commons. The Parti Québécois, when it crafted a referendum bill in the late seventies, had not foreseen the advent of a federal sovereignist party or of a federal sovereignist leader more popular than the sitting premier. There was no role written in the Quebec act for a federal figure such as Bouchard. It had to be invented on the fly, in the heat of the action.

But while the sovereignist forces eagerly rallied behind the leader of the Bloc Québécois, and in many instances had long been calling for Bouchard’s ascent, any parallel attempt to substitute Jean Chrétien for Daniel Johnson would have led to disaster. For many francophone federalists, a prime minister whom they closely associated with both the controversial patriation episode and the demise of the Meech Lake Accord was a liability, not an asset.

At least initially, Jean Chrétien had to settle for the place that Pierre Trudeau had carved out for himself during the first referendum. “I decided to make three speeches; that was exactly the number that Pierre Trudeau delivered in 1980. I’m a fighter. I might have liked to do more but I accepted the rationale that I should stick to Trudeau’s pattern.”

In the last of those three speeches, Jean Chrétien reversed himself on the issue of the constitutional recognition of Quebec’s distinct society, a concept that had no more influential critic than Pierre Trudeau. Chrétien says that, just prior to the vote, he gave his predecessor a heads-up about his reversal.

“Before I promised to do something about the distinct society I called Trudeau. I did not want him to contradict me in public. He told me: ‘You’re the boss; do what you want.’ The conflict I had with Trudeau over distinct society was that I thought it was meaningless and I did not see the point of fighting against it. At some point, I told myself: if that is what Quebecers want so much, let’s just do it.”

It was not the first time that Chrétien pleaded with Trudeau to keep his peace on the distinct society issue, but it was the first time he succeeded.

During the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992, Chrétien, who was then the leader of the opposition, had tried to persuade Trudeau to tone down his opposition to enshrining the distinct society concept in the Constitution. “Trudeau and I had agreed to disagree. I had told him it was not worth making the issue a life-or-death one; that sometimes it was better to compromise. But Trudeau would not change his mind and it did give me problems with my caucus. We remained friends but his attitude did not help. Mind you, it did not prevent me from becoming prime minister.”

Jean Chrétien won the 1995 referendum. But the result fell short of the decisive victory that would have put the sovereignty debate to rest. In hindsight, it may be that the sovereignist movement only exchanged the gift of a swift death for a slow but agonizing one. Since October 1995, polls suggest that one in five Yes supporters have changed their minds. The Parti Québécois has had four leaders since Jacques Parizeau resigned. Three of them — Lucien Bouchard, Bernard Landry and Pauline Marois — served as premier. None has managed to rekindle the sovereignist flame. As for the Bloc Québécois, it was relegated to the back of the House of Commons after its ranks were reduced to only four MPs in the 2011 election.

But in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 vote, the federalist picture did not look so rosy. After the referendum, Jean Chrétien invested a lot of energy and resources into changing the rules that would guide future federal governments in the event of another referendum. Instead of moving on to other policy fronts, he had to stand guard against a rematch in Quebec and, perhaps more importantly, he had to find ways to channel the referendum frustration of ROC voters at having been frozen out of the Quebec campaign into something other than a backlash against his Liberals.

Today Chrétien does not rule out that there could be one day another referendum, but he is satisfied that it will be fought under clearer rules of engagement. “They [the sovereignists] will not be able to ask another question like the 1995 one. It is intellectually honest to have a clear question. It was a mistake to try to win a mandate through the back door.”

When we interviewed him for this book, Chrétien had been out of the game for a decade. There is no doubt that the steady decline in sovereignist fortunes since then encouraged him to diminish the harm to his career and his government that was nearly done by the bullet he so narrowly dodged.

When he looks back on his time in politics, it seems that the memories he most cherishes come from periods of great adversity. As prime minister, Jean Chrétien had to face not only a referendum that he nearly lost, he struggled with a dire fiscal crisis and the question of taking Canada to war in Iraq. Within his party, he contended with a civil war and an attempted putsch. One would think that after having fought all those battles he would be content to rest on his laurels. Instead he claims that he is sorry to have missed out on the challenge of running a minority government. He says it would have been “fun.” Of the blood sport of politics, he remembers the thrill of battle rather than the pain of the effort.

Jean Chrétien loves to have the last word. For 10 years, it was a privilege he enjoyed in his daily question period jousts with the leaders of the opposition. He used to talk about how he liked to twist a verbal knife into his opponents during his closing answer — when they could no longer strike back. It is logical that, of all the protagonists who generously agreed to relive the referendum drama for our benefit, he gets to speak at the end. Chances are that, for once, none of the others will take issue with his words. He might well be speaking for them all.

“What is politics? It is to skate on thin ice without ever knowing if it is about to open up, without ever knowing if you are on the verge of being sucked into the deep. You make one small mistake and you disappear and no one wants to see you anymore. Every day, you tell yourself that you have survived to live another day. That is the adrenaline of politics. To never know what will happen the next day makes for an exciting life!”

By Chantal Hébert/From: The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was