The Back Page

TO THE BRINK AND BACK

Somehow, startling revelations about the 1995 referendum aren’t news

PAUL WELLS April 26 2004
The Back Page

TO THE BRINK AND BACK

Somehow, startling revelations about the 1995 referendum aren’t news

PAUL WELLS April 26 2004

TO THE BRINK AND BACK

The Back Page

Somehow, startling revelations about the 1995 referendum aren’t news

PAUL WELLS

SHORTLY BEFORE the 1995 secession referendum Jacques Parizeau sent a former Quebec industry minister named Rodrigue Biron to negotiate directly with Preston Manning over the steps that would follow a Yes victory. This fishing expedition yielded “astonishing results,” Pierre Duchesne writes in Le Régent, the third volume in Duchesne’s epic biography of Parizeau. The Reform leader, whose party held almost as many seats as the Bloc Québécois in the Commons, would have followed even the narrowest Yes victory by tabling a motion in the

House of Commons demanding that Jean Chrétien resign as prime minister. “It was a vote of confidence aimed only at the prime minister, not at the government in its entirety,” Manning told Duchesne in an interview barely two months ago. He would also have demanded that the Bloc abandon its position as the official Opposition in favour of Reform. And he would have demanded that negotiations begin at once for Quebec’s departure from Confederation.

Manning warned Parizeau’s emissary the negotiations wouldn’t be “a walk in the park.” Given what was known at the time about Reform’s preferred bargaining position, which included the territorial partition of a seceding Quebec, this was an understatement. Parizeau’s men couldn’t care less. They took great comfort in Manning’s position. “Manning thought the Yes would win,” Jean-François Usée, one of Parizeau’s most trusted advisers, tells Duchesne. “For him, the decision rule was 50 per cent plus 1. For us, this was enormous.”

Now, you can discuss among yourselves the significance of all this. I’m not trying to make Manning look like a goat. Maybe he looks like a hero. I’m just amazed that weeks after Duchesne’s book hit the bookstores (it’s available only in French), nobody is talking about this or the dozens of other revelations it contains.

The dedication of Canadian journalists in reducing history to its most trivial expression is perhaps our only lasting contribution to the craft. More than eight years after the fact, Duchesne, a Radio-Canada reporter, has produced what amounts to the first serious history of the 1995 referendum. He covers only the separatist side, but that’s where the action was, after all. He had unparalleled access to Parizeau’s papers and to his advisers. There is a revelation every 10 or 15 pages. Yet the bulk of the coverage his book has received concentrates on a silly little soap opera.

Duchesne writes that Bernard Landry demanded Parizeau’s resignation the morning after the infamous “money and ethnic votes” speech—and wanted to take over the job of premier in his absence. Landry now denies it. There has been public sniping between the two men. Several newspapers have been riveted by the spectacle.

Who cares?

Meanwhile, here’s what else is in Duchesne’s book.

Parizeau had appointed a cabinet minister full-time to produce studies showing how easy the transition to sovereignty would be. Unfortunately, the transition to sovereignty wouldn’t be easy and the minister, Richard Le Hir, was a buffoon. The whole process became a laughingstock.

Now Duchesne reveals that Parizeau set up a secret parallel secretariat to produce the real studies on relations between Canada and a sovereign Quebec. What follows is technical but important: the only way to avoid “absolutely enormous costs” as Canada’s national economy disintegrated, an organizer of the secret secretariat says, would be to form a Canada-Quebec customs union with common external tariffs. Which meant Quebec couldn’t send its own representative to global trade talks at GATT or the WTO.

Duchesne writes that Parizeau took one look at his best thinkers’ best work and went ballistic. No Quebec trade envoys? Forget it, he said. Quebec would send its own envoys— but it would only be pretending to be an independent country. Parizeau admits that “Quebec would adopt the Canadian tariff and when the Canadian government changed its tariffs we would do the same thing.” And he didn’t want to hear from eggheads telling him otherwise: “Stow your report. Disband the committee. That’s not what I want!”

Note the layers of deception and self-deception here—a secret report, a refusal to believe work Parizeau himself had commissioned. There’s more of that all through the book. The 1995 question famously didn’t include the word “country.” Duchesne reveals that it used to say, “Do you agree that Quebec should become a sovereign country...” But polls showed the Yes vote rose if they took the word “country” out. So out it went.

There is so much more in this book. Our country came to the brink, and this is the best chronicle so far of how it happened. But apparently that’s not “news.” lî1!

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