Along time ago, when the chances of a Yes victory in Quebec’s referendum seemed far, far away, the idea sounded like an ideal way to celebrate the diverse elements that make up Canada. Shortly before the Oct. 30 vote, some No side strategists decided, they would invite all five surviving former prime ministers—Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney,
John Turner, Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau— to appear together at a rally in Montreal.
Accordingly, Jean Chrétien was asked—and agreed—to telephone each of them to see if they were willing to participate. All agreed enthusiastically.
But that was then, before Lucien Bouchard’s sovereignty caravan started generating the kind of breathless enthusiasm normally reserved for religious figures who heal the sick with one touch and perform magic with loaves and fishes. And now this week, when the No side holds a large-scale rally in Montreal, the five were unlikely to be there in a featured role, despite their collective enthusiasm. Plans for their meeting were scrapped last week by suddenly leery organizers, who feared, in the words of one, “that the whole thing could go wrong in a million ways that none of us can imagine right now.”
It was that kind of week for the No forces, who in the space of two weeks have moved from confident assertions of surpassing the 60per-cent mark to pondering the previously unthinkable what-if question. Even Prime Minister Chrétien, who has never in anyone’s memory acknowledged the possibility that sovereigntists could win any referendum anytime, showed uncommon reticence on the topic. Discussing the federalist side’s hopes for victory in a midweek speech to Ottawa-area Liberals, he said: “We are not there yet. We still have to fight.”
With one week left before Quebecers cast their ballots, the mood in Ottawa was noticeably more subdued than it was at the outset of the campaign a month ago. There was uncertainty in two areas: whether to change the No side’s strategy of concentrating on gloomy economic forecasts in the event of a Yes, and the new and troubling question of what to do in the immediate aftermath of an ambiguous vote result—in the range of 51 to 52 per cent for either side.
With one week to go, some changes were likely in campaign strategy. Privately, federal officials conceded that Finance Minister Paul Martin committed a gaffe last week when he said in Montreal that up to a million jobs in Quebec could be jeopardized by independence. Although Martin did not say the jobs would be lost, and some studies support his findings, opponents pounced on the comment as an example of fear-mongering. And the credibility of Martin, who is one of the more popular federalist spokesmen in Quebec, suffered badly.
Chrétien, despite his reputation as someone who loves a brawl, adopted a statesmanlike tone in a speech in Quebec City, in an obvious attempt to lower the emotional temperature of the debate. Eight times in the speech, he asked Quebecers to “think carefully” before casting
their votes. Similarly, when he speaks in Montreal at a No rally this week, aides say his message will be upbeat, concentrating on the virtues of Canada rather than the potential weaknesses of a sovereign Quebec. One option being considered is promising enhanced provincial powers after a No vote. Another adjustment is that Conservative Leader Jean Charest, considered far and away the best speaker on the No side, has been given new prominence.
Among Chrétien’s circle of advisers, most still consider a No victory a virtual certainty, despite recent polls showing the two sides neck and neck. But forecasts of the margin of victory have narrowed dramatically: the same strategists who predicted a 60-40 No win several weeks ago now talk about “scraping through” with about 53 or 54 per cent of the vote. And a win by that margin, said one adviser gloomily, “is not the absolute worst thing that could happen—but it is not far removed from it.”
The problem is that virtually everything the federal government hopes to achieve in the short term is based on the presumption that the issue of Quebec’s future could be set aside after Oct. 30 to concentrate on other things. A close result, with the lingering uncertainty that implies, could affect those plans. Among them, Chrétien is scheduled to leave on Nov. 3 for a two-week trip to the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy is supposed to unveil planned reforms—and reductions—to social programs. Already, the introduction of those reforms is behind schedule, and planning for the traditional February budget with the finance minister’s direct involvement has usually been under way at this point for at least a month. But the referendum campaign has meant, said a Martin associate, that “no business is being done today that can possibly be put off until tomorrow.” The more pressing question around Ottawa is whether, after Oct. 30, business as usual will ever be as usual again.
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