01/07/2015 02:42 EST | Updated 03/09/2015 05:59 EDT

Scottish Referendum Lessons On Quebec Flagged For Harper: Memo

OTTAWA - On the eve of a nail-biting referendum on Scottish independence, Canada's top public servant counselled Stephen Harper on the possible implications for the Quebec sovereignty movement.

Newly declassified memos also show Privy Council Office officials kept Denis Lebel, Harper's Quebec lieutenant and intergovernmental affairs minister, apprised of developments as the September ballot drew near.

The memos, obtained under the Access to Information Act, shed light on efforts to prepare Conservative government leaders for possible reverberations from the vote, both abroad and at home.

Some passages — including paragraphs dealing with foreign and federal-provincial affairs — remain secret.

Voters were asked whether Scotland should be an independent country, with the understanding that a majority of 51 per cent would decide the outcome.

Scots ultimately opted to remain part of the United Kingdom, though things were too close to call in the days leading up to the historic Sept. 18 referendum.

Wayne Wouters, who was Privy Council clerk at the time, stressed to Harper the interest in the vote among the Canadian media — especially in Quebec.

Wouters noted in his Sept. 17 memo that leading Quebec sovereigntists such as Jean-Francois Lisee and Bernard Drainville had said that a clear question — similar to the one put to Scottish voters — would be beneficial in the provincial context.

The No camp's victory by the narrowest of margins in the 1995 Quebec referendum prompted a national debate over what would constitute a clear decision to secede from Canada.

Wouters cautioned that regardless of the Scottish vote's outcome, the United Kingdom would likely undergo "significant changes" as a result. "Pro-Union parties have made solemn commitments for greater devolution in the event of a No victory. Conversely, a Yes victory will kick off long and complex negotiations."

In early September, during a visit to London, Harper had waded into the debate with a clear statement in favour of Scotland retaining its long-standing ties to England.

He said "there’s nothing in dividing those countries that would serve either greater global interests or frankly the interests of people in those countries.”

Following the referendum, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, lead Canadian spokesman on the results, issued a statement welcoming the decision to "remain within a strong United Kingdom."

But it seems Lebel was being carefully briefed on the nuances of the campaign in case of a different outcome.

In a secret Sept. 11 memo, the Privy Council Office advised the minister on the surging Yes forces as well as key issues including currency, oil and gas revenues, health services, nuclear submarines on Scotland's west coast, and the prospect of European Union membership in the event of independence.

"There has been a perception that the No camp is panicking as polls narrow and the Yes side gains momentum."

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