Neverendum: the referendum question in Quebec

Neverendum: the referendum question in Quebec

by Jill Stephenson
article from Monday 3, July, 2017

ON 24 JULY 1967, President Charles De Gaulle of France made a rousing speech to a crowd of some twenty thousand in front of the city hall in Montreal, which culminated in the words ‘Long live free Quebec, long live French Canada and long live France’.

The choice of date was significant: a Frenchman, Jacques Cartier, had ‘discovered’ Canada on 24 July 1534. De Gaulle was surfing a wave of separatist feeling in Quebec that had grown since the founding of groups in the 1950s and 1960s that campaigned for sovereignty for Quebec. His intervention was branded by the Canadian premier, Lester B. Pearson, as ‘unacceptable’. In the following year, 1968, various pro-separatist groups merged into a new Parti Québécois (PQ), under the leadership of René Lévesque. The PQ contested provincial elections, and in 1976 was successful in the Quebec general election, on a manifesto that promised to hold a referendum on ‘sovereignty-association’ during its first term in government.

De Gaulle’s intervention was designed to remind the world, and in particular the United Kingdom and English-speaking Canada, that the French had been the first Europeans to colonise Canada and that the province of Quebec had a distinct identity deriving from its French linguistic and cultural heritage. According to the 2006 census, 72 per cent of the inhabitants of the Greater Montreal area are native French-speaking while in the rest of Quebec the proportion is 95 per cent.

The English-speaking population of Quebec declined significantly between 1971 and 2001, from 13.1 per cent to 8.3 per cent. This included the period of the two referendums on secession that have been held so far. The 2006 census showed a slight upturn in the number of Anglophone Quebecers, but their numbers are projected to decline in the long term.

With the PQ in government in Quebec from 1976, a referendum was held on 20 May 1980. The wording of the question was long and complex:

The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad – in other words, sovereignty – and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?

It is unlikely that the British Electoral Commission would approve a referendum question of one hundred and six words. Of interest to a British audience is, however, the phrase to ‘maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency’, as well as the proposal to hold a further referendum to ratify any new agreement between Quebec and Canada. In other words, success in the referendum would give the government of Quebec the authority to negotiate with the government of Canada, but would not of itself give the government of Quebec the authority to secede. That would happen only if a further referendum approved the outcome of the negotiations.

Secession from Canada would, according to the wishes of the PQ, leave Quebec in a favoured position from the point of view of trade and ‘a common currency’. There is an element of ‘having your cake and eating it’ about this aspiration, much as there was in the SNP’s desire to enter a currency union with the UK in the event of success in its 2014 referendum.

In the event, the population of Quebec turned out in large numbers (85.61 per cent), with 59.56 per cent of them rejecting the plan for ‘sovereignty-association’. Among francophone Quebecers, some 50 per cent voted for the proposition, indicating that half of them were content for Quebec to remain a part of Canada. The PQ declared that it would continue to pursue the goal of sovereignty, and Lévesque made a speech in which he said: ‘If I have understood you correctly, you are telling us “until the next time”’.

There were echoes of this in Alex Salmond’s claim during the 2014 Scottish referendum campaign that that was ‘no such thing as No voters, only deferred yes voters’. Almost a year after the Quebec referendum, in April 1981, a provincial election gave the PQ an increased majority with 49.2 per cent of the vote – a rise of 8 per cent compared with 1976.

Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian premier at the time of the 1980 Quebec referendum, had promised in advance that there would be changes to the federal system obtaining in Canada. In the event, constitutional discussions between the federal and provincial governments, and between the federal and Quebec governments, were held throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, but no agreement was reached. Ultimately, in 1994 the PQ returned to government in Quebec, under Jacques Parizeau, with 44.75 per cent of the popular vote and a manifesto pledging to hold a referendum on sovereignty. This time, there was dissension in the ranks of the secessionists. Parizeau represented a group that opposed the kind of ‘sovereignty-association’ proposed in the 1980 referendum, which would have maintained ties with Canada in the areas of currency and the economy. His view was that the federal government would probably refuse in advance of the vote to negotiate ‘association’ terms, as had happened in 1980, and that that would ensure that the vote for sovereignty was doomed.

On the other side was Lucien Bouchard, who led the Bloc Québécois in the federal parliament in Ottawa. He agreed that reluctant separatists would be deterred from voting for secession if it meant breaking all ties with Canada, and therefore he insisted that the option of negotiating ‘association’ should be retained. In the end, a compromise was reached, whereby Quebec would offer to negotiate a partnership with the government of Canada while allowing Parizeau to declare unilateral independence if negotiations were refused or failed.

An action in the Quebec Superior Court received the judgment that a UDI would be ‘manifestly illegal’, but no move was made to halt the referendum. The federal campaign – against Quebec’s secession – was led by the Liberal leader, Daniel Johnson Jr. It was a bitter campaign, with Quebec secessionists complaining about the federal government’s participation in it, in particular about the rally held on 27 October 1995 in support of the ‘crusade for Canada’. Possibly 100,000 were present at the rally, including people from English-speaking Canada, who were encouraged to attend.

On 30 October 1995 the referendum was held. This time, the question was shorter. It also contained the words that no referendum (or exam question) should include, namely ‘Do you agree?’:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political   partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on 12 June 1995?

‘The Bill’ was the Sovereignty Bill that the PQ government introduced in 1995 to give the National Assembly the power to declare Quebec sovereign in the event of a vote for secession. The ‘agreement of 12 June 1995’ was that reached by the PQ leaders to seek partnership with the Canadian government in the event of a ‘yes’ vote. A massive 93.25 per cent of Quebecers took part in the referendum, yielding a result of 49.42 per cent in favour of secession and 50.58 per cent against it. 60 per cent of French-speaking Quebecers voted for secession. There were disputes over the 86,000 non-valid votes, given that the winning majority was a mere 56,000, but investigations revealed no evidence of malpractice. Otherwise, there has been no challenge to a vote that was as narrow as it could be.

The federal government had given no undertaking that it would recognise a vote for secession, and Canadian premier Jean Chrétien’s draft speech to be given in the event of a ‘yes’ vote claimed that the question was too vague and that the vote indicated only dissatisfaction with the status quo. There was disquiet on the federal side that such a momentous decision could have been taken on the basis of 50 per cent +1 vote – as has also applied in the UK – and that the 1995 vote was won only so very narrowly.

Accordingly, in 1996, the federal government went onto the offensive, petitioning the Supreme Court. The questions it posed related to the legality of a UDI by the government of Quebec, in terms of both Canadian and international law. The Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that a UDI would be illegal in both cases. Its further rulings were incorporated into the Clarity Act of 29 June 2000 that gave the Canadian House of Commons the right to decide, before a vote could be held, whether a referendum question was sufficiently unambiguous. This also ruled out any proviso about negotiations between the governments of Quebec and Canada: any future referendum had to be about secession, and secession alone. That much was clear: there was to be no fudging of the issue with mitigating promises of ‘association’ with Canada after secession to attract ‘soft yes’ voters. Somewhat opaquely, however, the Clarity Act further gave the House of Commons the authority to decide, after the vote, whether a clear majority had expressed a view in favour of secession, implying that some kind of supermajority might be required. The House of Commons was also assigned authority to decide whether a referendum had violated any of the terms of the Clarity Act. This aroused anger in Quebec, which adopted its own ‘mirror law’, which emphasised Quebec’s right to self-determination as well as the territorial integrity of Quebec.

The two referendums had an adverse effect on the economy of Quebec. Thousands of people – many of them high-salaried Anglophones – left Montreal for Toronto and elsewhere outside Quebec in the era of the 1980 referendum. The 1995 referendum saw a pause in foreign investment while some residents moved their investments out of Quebec, again, mostly to Toronto. Montreal has never recovered its position as a dynamic economic motor. Nevertheless, the possibility of another referendum remains a live issue, especially when the PQ is in government in Quebec. The loss by the PQ of a snap election in April 2014 – not least because it had proposed another referendum – suggests that the secessionists’ moment may have passed.

Certainly, younger Quebecers, when polled, seem strongly against independence. At the same time, the considerations that drove even some who were sympathetic to secessionists’ ambitions to vote ‘no’ in 1980 and 1995 continue to inhibit them from favouring another referendum. Quebec receives significant transfer payments from the Canadian government. It has a relatively ageing population and a relatively small tax base. Worries about trade, inward investment and a new currency persist. Meanwhile, there has already been significant devolution of power to Quebec and recognition of its cultural identity. 

Some of that might sound familiar.

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