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

03/05/2015 12:44 EST | Updated 05/05/2015 05:59 EDT
chantal hebert

Chantal Hébert is nominated, with co-author Jean Lapierre, for the Writers' Trust Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was. The winner will be announced on March 11 at the Politics and the Pen gala in Ottawa. For more information, visit www.writerstrust.com.

An excerpt from The Morning After:

Few people can claim to have single-handedly changed the course of history. On the morning of October 30, 1995, Lucien Bouchard believed he was about to do just that. "I was never one to use the word historic in my speeches. In politics, it is a term that is too often abused. But on that morning, I told myself that it was probably going to be a historic day in the true sense of the word. Quebec was about to fully take its place in history."

The pollsters who had been tracking the vote for the pro-sovereignty side as referendum day approached were as categorical as they could be. The lead that the Yes camp had built since mid-campaign had held over the final weekend before the Monday vote. As long as the well-oiled sovereignist machine got the vote out, the Yes camp would have a rendezvous with history that very night.

The hard-nosed strategists who ran the campaign concurred. Many of them had memories of the beating their side had taken in the 1980 referendum. They had lost that vote by twenty points. Fifteen years later, the end of this second campaign has a very different feel.

In twenty-five years, no sovereignist party had ever managed to cross the 50 percent line in a federal, provincial or referendum vote. But the leaders of Quebec's sovereignty movement were convinced that the referendum results would make up for a quarter of a century of near misses. For the first time ever a majority of Quebecers would line up behind the sovereignist option.

So confident was the Bloc Québécois leader that he prepared only one speech for that night's Yes rally. It was a victory address. "People think that politicians always write two speeches but on that occasion I wrote only one, the real one," he recalls about the undelivered draft that he wrote out in longhand.

If his side prevailed, Bouchard expected the result to pave the way to the tough negotiation of a different relationship between Quebec and the Canadian federation. On the morning of the referendum, that upcoming battle was naturally on his mind. But so was another battle of wills that was already playing out on a different front.

Before a single vote was cast or counted, a power struggle for control of the post-victory agenda was underway among the partners who made up the pro-sovereignty coalition. The façade of unity cemented by short-term electoral necessity was showing cracks.

Bouchard, whom so many Quebecers expected to see at centre ice in the aftermath of a Yes victory, felt that he was being forced out of the play. "Jacques Parizeau's people were even more convinced than I was that we were about to win. In their minds, it was a done deal. I sensed that all the compromises that had been arrived at to give me more space in the campaign were behind them. The message was that the premier was back in charge."

The star of the Yes camp sensed that he was fast exhausting his usefulness to the man under whose orders he was expected to lead Quebecers to independence. With the campaign barely over, Bouchard's role was about to be downgraded from indispensible to disposable. He was determined not to let that happen.

Almost twenty years after the fact, the Parizeau and Bouchard teams still cannot agree how things played out between them over the course of that fateful day. To listen to the former Bloc Québécois leader, he was systematically given the cold shoulder. His calls to Parizeau went unreturned with his queries ignored. "I simply could not talk with Mr. Parizeau or with people close to him. I simply could not get through to them."

Mario Dumont, the leader of the Action Démocratique party (ADQ) and third partner in the Yes triumvirate, and Bob Dufour, Bouchard's long-time political organizer, both back the latter's recollection of events. But Parizeau's right-hand man, Jean Royer, offers a contrary view. The premier's former chief of staff says he personally took care to liaise with Bouchard and his entourage throughout the day.

What remains uncontested is that between the time the polls opened that Monday morning and until defeat was certain late that night, the federal leader of the opposition and the premier never exchanged a word, not to coordinate an evening that both believed would be momentous for Quebec and certainly not to discuss their plan for the critical hours after a Yes vote.

2015-03-04-1425506414-6816473-Hebert_MorningAfter.jpg In politics, nights on which every word counts are few and far between. Yet Parizeau and Bouchard did not so much as compare notes ahead of the referendum-night rally. With the eyes of the world riveted on them and on the province they sought to lead to nationhood, they never discussed what spin they would give to a result that was expected to be historic but also fairly close. "Until early in the evening, we had no sense from the Parizeau people how events would unfold after the Yes had won. The premier was incommunicado." At some point over the course of the day, Parizeau taped a victory speech for television. Bouchard says he had no direct input in that speech: "He taped his grand address without telling us." Had the two leaders discussed any of this, they might have found themselves on different pages.

That Monday evening, Bouchard and Parizeau watched from different suites of the Montreal Palais des congrès as the referendum results came in; but it wasn't until minutes before Bouchard delivered an improvised concession speech that they finally spoke, and even then only by cellphone as the Bloc leader was making his way to the stage.

The issue of its political future had just split Quebec wide open: 50.6 percent had voted no and 49.4 percent had voted yes. Fewer than 55,000 out of almost 5 million votes separated the winners from the losers.

Bouchard recalls Parizeau saying that his own speech would be quite different.

Excerpted from The Morning After. Copyright © 2014 Chantal Hébert and Jean Lapierre. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a Penguin Random House Company. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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