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

Running out of time on this one. Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading all the books that have been selected as finalists for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize for political writing (not including my own), and writing up my reactions — mainly to promote conversation. Today we have Chantal Hébert (with Jean Lapierre) The Morning After: the 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was.

This book is a series of “behind-the-scenes” interviews with politicians involved in the events surrounding the 1995 Quebec referendum. It was widely reviewed in the press when it came out, so I won’t repeat elements of that discussion. It should be noted that these reviews contained a lot of “spoilers,” so a lot of the interesting revelations I already knew before reading the book (e.g. that Jacques Parizeau wouldn’t take Lucien Bouchard’s phone calls, and so the two of them didn’t speak on the day of the vote – there was no coordination between the two on what they were going to say). As a result, a lot of what I learned beyond that were smaller details, which nevertheless I found interesting. (I moved from Montreal to Toronto during the summer of 1995, so I saw things unfolding from both perspectives.) For example, I now understand what the whole “Lucienne Robillard” thing was about, and why she turned out to be such a wet firecracker. Brian Tobin says some interesting things as well, helping me to understand better some of his influence.

What I want to comment on, however, are the structural features of the Canada-Quebec dynamic that, in many ways, determine a lot of the more peculiar features of the situation that Hebert documents. The picture she paints is essentially one where both sides were deeply unprepared for a “yes” vote, each in a different way. Lucien Bouchard and Paul Martin stand out, in particular, for having extremely unrealistic views of how things would have played out.

On the “yes” side, there was a major disagreement between Parizeau and Bouchard about what it even meant for the “yes” to win, with Bouchard taking the whole idea of negotiations with Canada to renew federalism quite seriously, and Parizeau not taking it seriously at all, and working on a strategy to box in and undermine Bouchard post-referendum. On the “no” side, there was an unwillingness to do any sort of contingency planning (primarily on the grounds that, if these plans became public, it would offer support to the “yes” side). Compounding this was significant ambiguity about the very meaning of a “yes” vote in such a referendum – and what sort of action it compelled on the part of the federal government.

Incidentally, reading the book reminded me of an article that Ezra Klein wrote a while back, called “Washington is bad at scheming.” He was lamenting the way that movies and television present such a misleading portrayal of how politics is carried out – by assuming that the players know what is going on and are capable of carrying out grand schemes. It’s a great article, worth quoting at length:

That’s the main thing I’ve learned working as a reporter and political observer in Washington: No one can carry out complicated plans. All parties and groups are fractious and bumbling. But everyone always thinks everyone else is efficiently and ruthlessly carrying out complicated plans. Partisans are very good at recognizing disarray and incompetence on their side of the aisle, but they tend to think the other side is intimidatingly capable and unburdened by scruples or normal human vulnerabilities…

But I tend to be shocked at how sophisticated it isn’t. Communication between various political actors – a crucial ingredient in any serious plan – is surprisingly informal and inadequate. Members of Congress and their staffs don’t really have access to secret, efficient networks of information. Instead, they read Roll Call and the Hill and The Washington Post and keep their televisions tuned to cable news, turning up the volume when a colleague involved in a bill they’re interested in appears on the screen. Then everyone sits around and speculates about what they just heard. Most every political reporter can back me up when I say that it’s extremely common for key players on both sides of the aisle to ask you what you’re hearing or how you’d rate the chances of their bill – and this typically happens when you’re sitting down to ask them the very same questions. It’s terribly disappointing and, I’m convinced, 100 percent genuine.

There’s also a lot less long-term planning than you might think. In general, politicians are overworked and understaffed. They’re traveling constantly, buried under too many meetings and constituent requests, and working desperately to stay one step ahead of whatever they’re getting yelled at about that week. That isn’t to say they don’t take on long-term projects, but in general, the way they take them on is one day at a time. The most common lamentation you’ll hear from congressional staffers when a legislative fight starts going badly is “didn’t anyone think of this beforehand?” In general, the answer is yes, someone saw the fight over the excise tax or the expiration of the Bush tax cuts coming. They just didn’t have enough time, or couldn’t get their boss and the relevant principals and staff members from other offices to put aside the time, to plan for it.

Although this is describing American politics, the picture that Hébert paints of Canadian politics is roughly the same. Important people talk to each other much less than one might think, and as a result, often don’t know what’s going on and have no coordinated strategy. The only exception to the rule that emerges from the portrait she paints is Jacques Parizeau, who really does come across as a man with a plan, and serious strategic vision (but then again, we knew that, didn’t we?)

So the confusion and general lack of preparedness Hébert documents strikes me, not as the product of any specific frailties on the part of the actors involved, but rather politics as usual under the influence of certainly structural factors at play in the Canadian context. These can be seen working on both sides:

1. On the “yes” side: The fundamental problem with holding a referendum in Quebec on its constitutional status is that there are three options that enjoy substantial public support, but a referendum question only allows two options. There are basically three voting blocks in Quebec: those who support secession, those who are happy with the status quo, and those who would like some sort of reformed federalism (often called “soft nationalists,” although for some that is a misnomer). Each option enjoys support that ranges according to time and circumstance between 20-40% – so for convenience, let’s just say that each has the support of a third of the population. This means that no option can win straightforward majority approval. As a result, when you run a referendum with “yes” and “no” as the two options it essentially becomes a contest between the two sides, to see which one can define itself broadly enough to attract the votes of two of the three major groups.

So in the 1980 referendum, there was a big push (largely successful) to establish that “no means reformed federalism” – in order to get the votes of those who support the status quo, as well as those who support reformed federalism. With the failure of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, however, the promise of reformed federalism became much more difficult to make. Thus in 1995 it was the turn of the “yes” side to try to annex those votes, by claiming that “yes means reformed federalism.” Parizeau took it one step further, by integrating Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont into the campaign – two people who actually did support renewed federalism. Hébert writes:

Bouchard était convaincu que, après un Oui obtenu avec une très faible majorité, le Canada finirait par accepter de négocier avec le Quebec, mais pas nécessairement en vue de la sécession de la province. “C’est certain que 51%, ce n’est pas comme 60%, mais c’est un mandat et je me disais, ‘S’ils ne jouent pas bien; s’ils refusent de parler; s’il sont méprisants, on retourne et on va chercher un mandat à 60%. Ils (la classe politique canadienne) le savent, ce sont des politiciens, des gens sages. Certains sont très respectueux de la démocratie. Il auraient réfléchi et dit: ‘Let’s strike a deal’. Qu’est-ce que ça aurait été? Je ne le sais pas, mais certainement quelque chose de pas mal mieux que ce qu’on a actuellement.(37)*

So it’s not really a surprise that Bouchard and Parizeau didn’t see eye-to-eye on much. The secret to winning a referendum on either side involves forming a coalition between people with fundamentally different views about where things should be going.

2. On the “no” side: The other peculiarity of these referenda, which made them different from say the recent referendum in Scotland, is that technically the federal government is just a by-stander. Because of the decentralized nature of the Canadian federation, they were basically initiatives undertaken by the Quebec provincial government, on its own. And so while they were broadly seen by the population as referenda on “independence,” like the Scottish one, in reality the second one really was just to get a mandate to negotiate with the federal government over the terms of association, with an eye toward possible secession.

I remember once seeing an old clip of Pierre Trudeau, responding to a journalist’s question about whether he would negotiate with Levesque if a referendum passed. His response was basically “Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. Suppose that the people of Cuba were to vote to join Canada – who knows, maybe they like Canadian women – would I be obliged to negotiate with them? I don’t think so.” Apart from the crack about liking Canadian women (this was the ’70s, back when politicians could say whatever came to mind), I remember thinking that the analogy between Quebec leaving and Cuba joining was crazy. But in fact he was right – there was at the time no clear legal obligation on the part of the federal government to accept Quebec’s secession, or even to negotiate over it. From Trudeau through Chrétien, the dominant view in Ottawa seems to have been that refusing to give a clear answer to this question aided the “no” side, by creating uncertainty, which would in turn make the sovereigntist option seem more risky. (This is why, when the Supreme Court reference regarding the secession of Quebec was handed down in 1998, the fact that they said Ottawa would be obliged to negotiate was hailed as a great victory in Quebec – I was surprised to discover that this had ever been a source of anxiety, since it had always seemed to me natural that, if push came to shove, Ottawa would negotiate. But apparently the whole “we won’t negotiate” line was not universally perceived as a bluff.)

Anyhow, all of this means that the “no” side is necessarily going to be divided and disorganized as well, since technically it’s just an intra-mural debate among Quebecers, and furthermore the federal government is systematically refusing to say what it would do in the event of a “yes,” precisely because it perceives itself as benefiting from an environment of uncertainty. So again, for structural reasons, one would not expect a very cohesive “no” camp.


The one thing that Hébert’s book makes perfectly clear is that no one was really prepared for a “yes” result, and so we narrowly avoided a very chaotic situation. The historical significance of the book depends largely upon whether we have another referendum. If the issue goes away, then this book will become primarily an object of interest for historians. If there is another referendum, on the other hand, the book will acquire enormous significance, simply because many people will be arguing that we cannot conduct it under the same rules. Of course the Clarity Act, the Supreme Court reference, and the Scottish experience will also loom large. But Hébert’s book will provide considerable ammunition for those who will argue that the process must be changed.


* Note that I was reading the French edition — I was in Quebec City last fall and picked it up in the airport, figuring that it would have been written in French. I was therefore surprised to discover on the inside, in fairly small print, that it was a translation from the English. On the other hand, I assume that a lot of the interviews were conducted in French. This generates a small complaint, on my part, about the book, which is that they should be a bit more clear about which parts have been translated and which haven’t. This will also be important down the road for scholars wanting to use the material.

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