CANADA/COVER

BACK FROM THE BRINK

In the final days, the federalists had an air of desperation

WARREN CARAGATA in Montreal November 6 1995
CANADA/COVER

BACK FROM THE BRINK

In the final days, the federalists had an air of desperation

WARREN CARAGATA in Montreal November 6 1995

BACK FROM THE BRINK

In the final days, the federalists had an air of desperation

On the leaf-littered streets of west end Montreal, outside Merton School with its Canadian and Quebec flags snapping in the wind, the midmorning quiet was interrupted only by the steady march of people. The citizens of D’Arcy-McGee riding were going to cast their ballots, and there was little doubt where they stood—and how they would vote.

Even before the polling station opened, 100 people were standing in line, waiting. Phyllis Bramson was one of them. Eighty years old and supported by an aluminum walker, she left no doubt about her views. “I’m praying,” she added.

But she and others knew that D’Arcy-McGee, with its high concentration of anglophones, was far from representative of Quebec, and they were scared. “It’s an eerie feeling,” said another voter, Eddy Enrus. By the end of the night, they also knew that every vote counted.

Throughout the day, as bright sunshine gave way to snow flurries, the crowds never slackened on the comfortable streets of D’ArcyMcGee—or on the meaner streets of Laurier-Dorion, in north-end Montreal, at the local No headquarters above a mosque. The feeling lasted into the evening as the votes were counted and the No crept closer to the Yes total, and then overtook it. Apprehensive No supporters crowded into what is ordinarily a downtown disco to cheer each fractional improvement. ‘This is the hardest part,” sighed Jan Davis, an architect who said the waiting after weeks of intensive work in the campaign wore on the nerves. “Go, go, go,” the crowd chanted when the No side edged closer, as the results came in from ridings like D’arcyMcGee and Laurier-Dorion and others with high concentrations of immigrants and anglophones.

The narrowness of the victory contributed to a subdued message from Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson, who headed up the No campaign. In a striking contrast to Premier Jacques Parizeau, who blamed ethnic voters, Johnson said he wanted to “reach out to all Quebecers.” He acknowledged the high percentage of Quebecers who voted for the sovereigntists, and said that the outcome was a clear sign that the province wanted change.

The close shave for the federalists was not predicted at the start of the campaign. Throughout September, several polls pointed to a comfortable victory for the No side. Then, on Oct. 7, the campaign began to turn. “The messiah arrived,” said Christos Sirros, the Liberal member of the national assembly for Laurier-Dorion. “And some people wanted a messiah.” The savior was Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard, vaulted into the leadership after strategists

realized that Parizeau would not be able to bring victory. The federalists were unable to refute Bouchard’s line of attack that a Yes vote would bring only a new relationship with the rest of Canada, not a sharp break. By the end of the campaign, polls suggested that 45 per cent of Quebecers were sure that they would be able to keep their Canadian passports in the event of a Yes vote. A quarter thought they would still be electing MPs to the Commons.

While the No side talked of the darkness that would follow a Yes, the Yes side talked of the light, a classic campaign of the positive versus the negative. And people were attracted to the positive. Claude Gauthier, vicepresident of CROP Inc., the Montreal polling firm, said Bouchard waged a masterful campaign that played on the attachment that all Quebecers, even separatists, have for Canada. “Federalists took a while to realize they were in a fight,” said Gauthier.

The cause was not helped when it appeared that Johnson and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien were at odds over recognition of Quebec as a distinct society. It was a shortlived dispute, but it provided a boost to Bouchard’s campaign. Johnson admitted that the dispute hurt. He and the Prime Minister hastily tried to recover with a joint statement. But then, an air of desperation about the No side became more palpable when Chrétien altered his schedule in order to appear in Quebec throughout the final week of the campaign. And faced with the possibility of a stunning repudiation of his entire political career, Chrétien did what would have been unthinkable a few months before. At a giant rally in Montreal and in a special television broadcast last week, he put the country on the road once again to constitutional bargaining with a promise to revisit Quebec’s longstanding demands for recognition as a distinct society. “We will be keeping open all the other paths for change, including the administrative and constitutional paths,” Chrétien said.

The event that helped to push the No side back to respectability came three days before the vote, with a massive unity rally in downtown Montreal attended by an estimated 150,000 people, many of them from across the country. “It made it obvious that there’s an attachment to Canada,” Sirros said. To the very end, the campaign was a heart-stopping affair. After all, said Sirros, the possibility of losing a country “is no small thing.” But the razor-thin margin will allow no one to savor the victory for very long. As Johnson put it, tellingly: “It is important to ensure that there is a quick conciliation.”

WARREN CARAGATA in Montreal