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Why Scotland's vote triggers Quebec referendum flashbacks

09/15/2014 04:27 EDT | Updated 11/15/2014 05:59 EST
To watch what is coming out of Scotland in the final days leading up to that country's independence vote on Thursday is to relive much of what happened here in Canada just before the 1995 Quebec referendum.

I know, I know, the Scottish question and the process are quite different, but it is the similarities that have triggered my flashbacks:

- The last-minute panic by the federal political leaders who seem to have just realized they could lose this vote:  check. 

- The scrambled visits by government officials, complete with promises to improve the partnership: check. 

- The professions of love and please-don't-go passion: check. 

- The economic warnings and threats about what will happen if the Yes side prevails: check.

Toss in the wee twist of watching a Canadian - former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, who now heads the Bank of England - warning that Scotland cannot possibly use the pound if it votes for independence, and well, you see where I am going with this.

Consumed by the story

Have I mentioned I am not at all enjoying this? While every journalist lives for stories of consequence, the referendum story is one I don't want to revisit.

I've been thinking a lot about the journalists in England and Scotland covering the upcoming vote. I'm sure that like we were, they are consumed by the story, working every angle and at a frantic pace.

But there will come a moment when they stop and realize what is happening is personal.

For me in 1995, that moment came in - of all things - a meeting about our special network coverage on referendum night. 

It was something we at CBC call a benchmark meeting. It is a staple of our political coverage, something a team does before every election or critical vote. 

The senior editorial people gather to talk about how to frame results, the language to use to describe specific results, the language not to use. We hash out potential scenarios and work through what they mean. The benchmark meetings are an indispensable part of CBC journalism and I always enjoy them.

But that Saturday morning meeting in a downtown Montreal hotel in 1995 was different.

We all knew we were there to talk about a program that might just be a broadcast about the beginning of the end of Canada as we knew it.

Latest intelligence

Mark Bulgutch was the head of CBC News specials at the time and he was producing the referendum night program hosted by Peter Mansbridge. Bulgutch chaired the meeting.

We went around the room and heard the latest intelligence from the lead reporters.

Jason Moscovitz, the CBC's chief political correspondent at the time, spoke last. In a direct, solemn voice he told us that off the record, federal government officials conceded they weren't at all sure of victory and were making plans to deal with whatever would follow a Yes outcome.

Had that proverbial pin dropped at the moment Jason finished speaking, it would have sounded like a cannon.

That's when the professional pep talks began.

Bulgutch remembers saying something like: "If the Yes side wins, we have to report as calmly as possible. We cannot let our program become a funeral. The country is not dead. The people watching us need the facts. I know it will be especially hard for those of you who live in Montreal and Quebec, but we have to do things the way we always do things. We can't go into panic mode."

Waiting for the late results

My assignment that night (I was producing in those days) was in a control room in the bottom of the Radio-Canada building where our French colleagues were co-ordinating their numerous remote feeds from across the province. 

The French technicians were chain-smoking and very nervous. They were caught up in their own story, and I found myself straining to hear the English story through one earpiece while trying at the same time to monitor the French program.

That night wasn't easy for any of us. 

And I remember Peter Mansbridge on referendum night. For hours, he calmly told anxious Canadians that while the early numbers indicated a Yes victory, we had to wait for the results from the island of Montreal, which were late coming in. 

Those late results led to the squeaker No victory.

So on Sept. 18, I will tune in to the BBC and think about what it is like for those people telling me the story.

They'll get the job done. But there will be another story behind the story. There always is.

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