10/27/2015 05:17 EDT | Updated 10/27/2016 05:12 EDT

Lessons Learned From The Quebec Referendum

Paul Vasarhelyi via Getty Images
Canadian and Quebec provincial flag

Twenty years ago some 150,000 people from across Canada assembled in downtown Montreal to make an appeal for the unity of the country. The "Unity Rally", as it became known, was held three days prior to the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty.

Participants felt considerable anxiety as polls revealed that the result of the referendum seemed uncertain. At the start of the campaign the federalist side enjoyed a near 20-point advantage. But by the last week the lead was only a few points. Federal strategists felt the 1990s equivalent of a sixties "love-in" might halt the sovereignist momentum in the last days of the campaign. By train, plane, bus and auto, people from outside and within Quebec flocked to Montreal to loudly express their affection for Quebec.

Twenty years later it is difficult to say whether the rally had any meaningful impact on the referendum other than making its many participants feel very good. In particular it offered the illusion of impact to counter the sense of disempowerment in the rest of Canada. They believed they were contributing to keeping the country together and continued to think so despite the narrow victory of the federalist side.

I participated in the rally and to this day remain very skeptical about whether it achieved its desired outcome. Purported to being undecided voters, observers on the streets described the rally as a most cynical and desperate gesture on the part of the rest of Canada. They suggested that the display of federalist affection was too little too late and wondered why all these Canadians didn't show up before October 27th. Yet other so-called neutral Quebecers insisted that the decision about whether the province should separate was between Quebecers only and they didn't appreciate being told what to do by "outsiders."

On the evening news, the Quebec media gave these "party poopers" ample time to air their views alongside the coverage of the rally. Federal strategists knew full well that such criticism of the rally were effective. Insightful sovereignist strategist Jean-François Lisée contends that the rally cost the federalists one per cent in what ended up being a nail-biter.

For many non-Quebecers it simply didn't feel right that Quebecers could decide the future of the country on their own. A popular bumper sticker featured in the 1995 campaign proclaimed that "my Canada includes Quebec." The slogan reflected the sentiment of many people that lived in the rest of the country. They viewed a sovereignist victory as the destruction of Canada not the emergence of an independent Quebec.

They were bothered by the offer of a partnership to Canada that accompanied the sovereignty option in the referendum question. When leaders in the rest of Canada carefully implied that they would refuse the offer of partnership, sovereignists construed this as either a bluff or an empty threat from the federalist side. According to sovereignists, in the aftermath of a vote for separation the rest of Canada would accept the conditions of a divorce and the terms for a new partnership as set out by the leaders of the new Quebec nation. Thankfully the sovereignist illusion of a painless divorce between Quebec and a fractured Canada has since been discredited.

In 2017, Canadians will commemorate their 150th anniversary. Over that period they have overcome some serious challenges to unity and the biggest was clearly in 1995. For the foreseeable future, the threat to unity appears to be in check. If, however, 20 years later there is a lesson to be learned from the experience of the 1995 campaign, it's that constructive talk about Quebec and Canada's shared future is eminently preferable to spontaneous outbursts of affection.


FLASHBACK: The 1995 Quebec Referendum