At the end of October in 1995 Canada came close to finally breaking up. Quebeckers took a vote on the 30th on whether or not their province should declare itself an independent nation. Most people and the media believe that the separatists would loose. The people drew these beliefs from a similar election help in 1980. Although in this recent poll, these scores were too close to call. The separatists were defeated by a one percent loss.
The reason this past election was so close is due mainly to the change of leadership on the separatist side. During the previous year before the election, the YES campaign had been led by Quebec’s premier Jacques Parizeau. Parizeau is an economics professor, and had led a ponderous campaign, since his Parti Quebecois (PQ) won provincial power 13 months earlier. The No side, led by provincial Liberal’s leader, Daniel Johnson, was winning, with warnings of a slump and heavy job losses if Quebec broke away.
On October 9th, Mr. Parizeau, realizing that his campaign was failing, handed over leadership of the separatists cause to Lucian Bouchard. Bouchard was head of the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), a distinct, federal level party which swept[t the polls in Quebec in the 1993 federal elections, and whose 53 members in the Ottawa parliament are second in number only to the ruling liberals of Jean Chretien.
Already in June, Parizeau had retreated from his outright separatist stance by agreeing with Bouchard, and with Mario Dumont, leader of a small nationalist party, to couple a declaration of sovereignty with an offer to negotiate with residual Canada a form of political and economic partnership, similarly modeled on the European Union. By naming Bouchard the chief negotiator of such a partnership during a year’s grace period after a YES victory, the Quebec premier yielded center stage to his far more popular ally. Bouchard gave full reign to his passionate goal. Within a week, opinion polls showed the YES vote climbing level with the NOes.
The reasons for Bouchard’s appeal to the people of Quebec are clear. A truck driver’s son who became who became Canada’s ambassador in Paris, in 1990 he stormed out of the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney, where he was environment minister, over constitutional differences. He built up the Block at extraordinary speed, to achieve its triumph in the 1993 elections. As leader of the opposition, he made Quebec’s mark in Ottawa. His recovery from a near fatal bacterial disease, which led to the loss of his left leg, gave him a certain aura. Capping all this is the conviction he projects that “ a YES vote will force the rest of Canada into swift and almost painless agreement on a partnership that will solve all major problems for a sovereign Quebec. True, on occasion Bouchard goes beyond oratory to absurdity, like when he calls A YES vote “A magic wand that will transform Quebec.” His speeches, added to a brilliant PQ advertising campaign suggesting that the people of the new Quebec it dreams of would be able to keep the Canadian dollar and still enjoy dual citizenship, have enlightened a dreary campaign, to the separatists advantage.
Of course the federalists had some response to all of this. Both sides realized that the key to win would be to win over the undecided French-speakers. Quebec’s English speakers had already made up their minds to show strong opposition to separation. On October 13th Christine brought the other nine provincial premiers to Montreal to discuss what he called “Team Canada” in building prosperity through trade.
Chretien did so to some effect, quoting Parizeau on the remarkable advances Quebec has made, and pointed out that Quebec did it all as part of Canada. He also demolished the idea of a political partnership by asking who wants another layer of government. Yet, the most persuasive NO campaigner has been Jean Charest, one of the two survivors of the Conservative disaster in the 1993 federal election. Charest, like Bouchard, aimed at the women voters who made up most of the “undecided”
The federalists made no such offer as to redraft the Constitution in Quebec’s favor. As a result of the political unrest the polls were extremely close. Quebec lost the election by a mere one percent.
Even though these events concluded with a certain