'We’re in trouble': 25 years later, what -- if anything -- has changed since the Quebec referendum?
MONTREAL -- The man was walking down Queen Mary Rd., smiling, when I stopped him to ask about his memories of 1995. In a blink, the smile was gone.
“You ask me about that as I’m on my way to Jean Coutu to take my blood pressure—what’s the matter with you?” he asked.
Then he smiled as if to say he was just playing to the camera. But when he started talking, you could see the stress as he briefly relived that infamous—or famous, depending on who you ask—year.
“It was not a good period,” said the man, who was in his 70s.
Over the next hour, I got variations of the same answer again and again when I asked about the referendum, whose 25th anniversary is today.
Given that we were in the D’Arcy-McGee riding, which includes the largely English-speaking communities of Cote-St-Luc and Hampstead, the answers are hardly a surprise. In 1995, more than 96 per cent of the riding voted No, the highest in the province.
“I was freaking because who knew what was going to happen,” said one voter.
Another chimed in, “I was thinking, if we lose, we’re in trouble.”
It’s a stark contrast to the answers you get in the Masson riding, which includes Mascouche and part of Terrebonne. In that riding, 71 per cent voted yes, the highest in the Montreal region, and today some are still bitter.
“We got screwed,” said one voter.
DIDN’T SEE IT COMING
For a campaign where the country hung in the balance, the 1995 referendum got off to a slow start, recalls former MP Liza Frulla, the co-chair of the No side. She says federalists were overconfident.
”We were 10 points ahead, and for the two first weeks it seemed like the Yes side didn't even exist.”
Former Globe and Mail reporter Rheal Seguin says that out of the gates, the Yes side seemed to be having trouble connecting with voters.
“In the first few days it seemed that people were more interested in the O.J. Simpson murder trial than they were in the Quebec referendum, and not too many people were filling the rooms like Mr. Parizeau had hoped,” Seguin recalled.
There was pressure on PQ leader, Jacques Parizeau, to take a backseat and let the popular leader of the Bloc Quebecois, Lucien Bouchard, take centre stage.
And when he eventually did, it invigorated the campaign.
“You had the most charismatic persona now speaking to the people,” recalls Frulla.
“He was like a god. People wanted to touch him.”
Part of Bouchard’s appeal was that he had been a defender of Quebec rights on the national stage, says Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
Bouchard was a close friend of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who had recruited Bouchard to join the Progressive Conservative party—but the two famously broke up following the failure of the Meech Lake accord, as Bouchard left the party.
“I think many Quebecers identified with him,” says Béland. Bouchard was “someone who gave Canada a chance, from their perspective, and then decided that it didn’t work.”
As things began improving for the Yes side, the No forces began struggling. Frulla remembers one rally where a speaker from the business community addressed the crowd.
“He got the energy of everybody, and he just said ‘We are going to crush them,’ and I remember hearing this and saying ‘Oh my God!’” Frulla says—she knew that wouldn't play well.
A TENSE NIGHT
The No side only managed to right the ship when the popular Progressive Conservative Party leader Jean Charest began to take a more active role.
“Jean Charest was the young politician at the time. He represented the new generation of federalists and certainly gave a lot of energy to the federalist forces," said Seguin.
But one questionable move still haunts federalists: the massive unity rally dubbed the “Love-In,” three days before the vote.
“It was viewed as an attempt on the part of non-Quebecers to influence the vote itself,” says UQAM political scientist Alain Gagnon.
Those who watched results coverage on referendum night saw the Yes side take an early lead.
It was a wild seesaw until victory, finally, for the No side—by the razor-thin margin of 50.6 per cent.
In his concession speech, a bitter Jacques Parizeau famously blamed the loss on “money and the ethnic vote,” words that have dogged the separatist movement ever since, and which ultimately cost Parizeau his job.
“The first comment that came to mind is ‘You’re supposed to be the [premier] of everybody,’” said Frulla, “and obviously that’s not the case.”
IS SEPARATISM DEAD?
A quarter-century later, PQ loyalists are still hoping for a third referendum, including former PQ MNA Gilbert Paquette.
“Even though we have not done our job, there are still between 35 and 40 per cent of the people who would still vote for sovereignty tomorrow,” he says.
But even in the Masson riding, the Yes voters of yesteryear aren’t so sure that vote will ever happen.
“I would have liked it to go through,” said a woman outside the local Metro grocery store, “but it’s in the past. We’re on to other things.”
In D’Arcy-McGee, meanwhile, many hope they’re done with referendums for good.
”It's a waste of money, it’s a waste of our time,” said a woman walking her dog on Queen Mary Rd.
“We are stronger together.”