Newly released documents reveal that the U.S. government would have held back recognition of an independent Quebec in the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 30, 1995, sovereignty referendum.
The material released Friday includes talking points, prepared for U.S. diplomats, as the official American response to two possible referendum outcomes: one for a united Canada, and one for a breakup.
It's the response never delivered that offers a rare glimpse into American preparation for a vote to separate Quebec, an issue that has suddenly become timely again in the current Quebec election.
"Since the Canadians have yet to work out their future constitutional arrangements, it is premature to consider the question of recognition of Quebec," said those talking points, issued on Oct. 27, 1995 and publicly released Friday by the Clinton Presidential Library.
The note went on to repeat pre-referendum warnings from the Clinton administration on another major concern: There would be no guarantees that an independent Quebec would be part of the NAFTA trade zone.
"Complicated legal issues are involved, and nothing is automatic," the note said. "We have given no assurances to any party."
The document was among several dozen released Friday by the Clinton Presidential Library, which is making available the archives of the Clinton administration in instalments.
The continuing release of those documents has been a sensitive subject in U.S. politics, given that the first lady from that era, Hillary Clinton, is considered the presidential front-runner if she chooses to run in 2016.
The timing of this particular release coincides with the re-emergence of Quebec independence as a hot topic in the current provincial election.
The statement on a Yes win never had to be delivered, as Quebecers voted in 1995 by a paper-thin margin to remain in Canada. This week, star Parti Quebecois recruit Pierre Karl Peladeau suggested that vote had been stolen by the pro-Canada side.
Pequistes have long groused about illegal federal spending during the campaign, and about the federal government ramping up its citizenship proceedings to allow more votes by immigrants, who lean more heavily toward the federalist side.
The pro-Canada side had another powerful supporter in Clinton.
He had told the Canadian Parliament in the run-up to the referendum: "In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts ... Canada has stood ... as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity and respect."
The documents released Friday contained a note that questioned the wisdom of Clinton taking sides like that. An Oct. 27 letter, sent to national security adviser Anthony Lake, recommended staying neutral because a U.S. endorsement could trigger an unwanted backlash from voters.
Premier Pauline Marois was asked about the document Friday.
"I will look at what you're referring to before making any comment," she replied, "and maybe I won't even make any comment."
The document includes details from a phone call between Clinton and then-prime minister Jean Chretien. The transcription is time-stamped 6:13 p.m. on the night of the referendum.
That note also appears to provide two different responses, depending on the outcome.
It spells Chretien's name wrong.
"IF NO: During the call, the two leaders discussed how important the vote was for the people of Quebec and Canada. Specifically, the President expressed his admiration for a strong and united Canada and how much the United States looks forward to working together with Canada to develop an even stronger relationship in the future," it says.
"IF YES: During the call, the two leaders discussed the outcome of the referendum and agreed that it is premature to predict the final impact of the vote. The President assured PM Cretien that the United States would continue to consult closely with Ottawa as Canada works outs out its constitutional arrangements in the coming weeks and months."
Part of the confusion in 1995 stemmed from the fact that there were wildly different interpretations of what the Parti Quebecois' referendum question actually meant. Some voters thought they were deciding on negotiating more powers for Quebec, while then-premier Jacques Parizeau has since admitted to planning a declaration of independence following a Yes vote.
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