Call it the eternal referendum, or in the phrase of Montreal humorist Josh Freed, the “Neverendum.” Quebec’s noisy debate about what it wants to do when it grows up—or whether it really wants to grow up at all—has been going on so long that even the main players seem bored. So far at least, the current campaign illustrates Karl Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In 1980, when the federalist forces triumphed over the sovereigntists, there were genuinely tragic overtones in the crushing of René Lévesque’s romantic dream of a sovereign nation. This time, there is precious little romance—only the farcical spectacle of the separatist troika of Premier Jacques Parizeau, Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont of the tiny Parti action démocratique contradicting each other and sniping their way through a sour, stumbling campaign. Some key questions about the campaign:
1. What’s it all about?
This is not as obvious as it might look at first glance. To federalists inside Quebec, and to the vast majority of Canadians outside the province, it seems clear that the essential issue is summed up in the first eight words of the official referendum question: “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign?” Parizeau himself, a committed separatist for more than a quarter of a century, leaves no doubt in his public remarks that a Yes vote means that Quebec will become an independent country. But the entire Yes campaign is focused on making voters concentrate instead on the rest of the question, 36 words that talk about forging a “new economic and political partnership” with the rest of Canada. Bouchard mentions partnership every time he talks about sovereignty, and Dumont goes so far as to deny that Quebecers are even voting on independence at all—just a new kind of union. The Yes side’s publicity skirts sovereignty as well, preferring bland slogans like “Yes to change” and ‘Yes—and everything becomes possible.” Even their campaign posters, out last week, feature innocuous symbols like the old peace sign or overtly Canadian emblems like the loonie.
The reason is clear: polls show that if Quebecers believe they are voting on independence, they will say No by a wide margin. The Yes side’s only chance is to convince voters that they are really deciding on a new partnership with Canada, not on taking the province out of the country. What worries federalists is that even after long, weary years of debating the issue and weeks of intense campaigning, there is still much confusion over what is at stake. Incredibly, one poll last week found that almost a quarter of voters —23 per cent—believe that Quebec would continue to be a province of Canada once sovereignty is achieved. Those are the kind of numbers that keep No organizers up nights.
2. Is the referendum campaign much different from an election?
In many ways it is similar: leaders tour the province in campaign buses while the Yes and No sides line the streets with posters and fill the airwaves with duelling messages. The big difference is that the entire province is treated as one enormous riding, and so every vote counts. In an election, Liberals pile up massive, and wasted, majorities in English-speaking areas like Montreal’s West Island, Péquistes do the same in their stronghold of Lac-St-Jean and both sides concentrate on swing ridings that could go either way. For the referendum, though, all votes count. So the key for both sides is to make sure that all their supporters get to the ballot box, even those Westmount anglos who might well stay home at election time secure in the knowledge that it would take nothing short of a miracle for a Liberal to lose there.
The campaign rules are different, too: Quebec’s Referendum Act sets strict limits on spending—just $1 per enumerated voter, or about $4.8 million for each side for all campaign expenses. That compares with about $1.50 per voter for a provincial election. It is also a shorter campaign: only 30 days, compared with between 33 and 38 days for an election.
3. Who can vote?
As in other provinces and federally, all citizens at least 18 years old are eligible. But in June, the Parti Québécois government amended the province’s voting law to allow enumerators to demand proof of citizenship when they go door to door. Federalists complained that that power might be used to intimidate ethnic voters, who tend overwhelmingly to support federalism. Another wrinkle is that unlike other provinces, Quebec allows people living temporarily outside the province to vote—provided they have been away for less than two years and declare an intention to return. No side organizers have worked hard to persuade expatriate Quebecers to register and vote, on the safe assumption that most of them will oppose separation. By the end of last week, 11,702 had signed up to vote, with
5,572 of those coming from other provinces and the rest from every continent. The expat vote will hardly be decisive, though: barely one-quarter of one per cent of the total vote.
4. What is this new “partnership” that the sovereigntists are proposing?
It was born on June 12 when Parizeau, Bouchard and Dumont signed the deal that brought them together in a formal alliance for the referendum, and gave the faltering sovereigntist cause new life. After a Yes vote, under this scenario, Quebec would propose a treaty to the rest of Canada to divide up the national debt and federal assets. Quebec wants to keep a common currency (the Canadian dollar); « a customs union with the rest of Canada; t free movement of capital, labor and goods I between the two new states; and the right of Quebecers to keep their prized Canadian I citizenship and passports along with their \ shiny new Quebec documents.
I Quebec would also propose an elaborate set of new common institutions to manage the relationship—an arrangement so complex that it resembles a kind of political Rube Goldberg machine. There would be a so-called Partnership Council made up of equal numbers of ministers from the two new countries, with each side having a veto over decisions; a Partnership Parliamentary Assembly made up of parliamentarians drawn threequarters from Canada and one-quarter from Quebec; an economic tribunal to resolve trade disputes; and a brand-new secretariat to administer the relationship. On paper, it sounds like a whole new level of government—hardly an appetizing prospect for overgoverned Canadians.
In practice, Parizeau is already backtracking on the proposed deal. Unlike his sovereigntist partners, who put great emphasis on the details of the new partnership, the premier has portrayed it as a much looser arrangement. He has mused publicly that Canada and an independent Quebec would adopt the same policy on such matters as trade only when they found themselves agreeing on a common course. “It’s not a question of a right of veto,” he told Radio-Canada on Sept. 10. “It’s deciding, a bit like what was done in Europe, that we take decisions unanimously. In some areas, we can’t agree? Then there’s no decision. In others it seems to be going well? Then & we decide together.” S
Parizeau’s distinctly relaxed ¡* approach to a possible partner-1 ship only draws attention to the | fact that he almost certainly does z
Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June I 2, I 995?”
-II-I ._ I__~
COMPANY SIZE DATES YES* 110*
Léger & Léger 959 Sept. 7-8 50.2% 49.8%
SOM I ,003 Sept. 812 45.1 54.9
COMPAS 959 SeptII-14 47 53
Createc 1,004 Sept 15-19 45.6 54.4
SOM/Environics 1.820 Sept. 19-25 45 55
Leger & Léger 1,006 Sept 25-28 46.8 53.2
Léger& Léger 1,015 Oct. 1-5 47.2 52.8
Note: Final numbers reached after redistributing voters who are undecided or will not state a preference
not believe for a moment that it could work. He spent most of his career in the PQ publicly disagreeing with Levesque’s old policy of sovereignty-association precisely because he felt that it makes no sense for a newly independent country to jump into a new set of complicated common institutions with the country it has just left. For Parizeau at least, the partnership proposal was quite simply something he had to swallow to get Bouchard and Dumont under the sovereigntist umbrella and rescue the movement from certain defeat.
5. Could Quebecers really keep their Canadian citizenship and passports after independence?
One of the paradoxes of the referendum debate is that even most Quebecers who intend to vote Yes remain attached to symbols of Canadian identity. And no symbol is more powerful than the Canadian passport, which is why Conservative Leader Jean Charest pulled his out of his pocket at the No side’s campaign kickoff rally on Sept. 17. “Are we going to walk into a ballot booth on Oct. 30, and leave our passports with Jacques Parizeau?” he demanded. Charest pushed a hot button in the debate: in one poll last spring, an overwhelming proportion of Quebecers—78 per cent— said they would want to keep their Canadian passports if the province became independent. That’s why the separatists have promised voters that they will be able to keep Canadian citizenship along with their new Quebec identity. Their argument is that Canada has allowed dual citizenship since 1977 (about 395,000 Canadians held dual or multiple citizenship in 1991), and any attempt to take it away from the citizens of a sovereign Quebec would hurt federalists most deeply.
The reality is much more murky. Under current law,
Quebecers could indeed keep Canadian citizenship after independence. But most experts maintain that the political and economic pressure to change the law would be overwhelming. Stanley Hartt, once chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, argued in a recent paper for the C. D. Howe Institute in Toronto that Canada can afford to have a few hundred thousand dual citizens now—but seven million Quebec-Canada citizens living next door would present an impossible situation. The reason, he wrote, is that while citizens can claim such rights as access to social programs, only those living in the country normally pay taxes and assume the other responsibilities of Canadian citizenship. The prospect of millions of Quebecers able to enter Canada at a moment’s notice and claim benefits for which they have paid no taxes would be intolerable. The most likely outcome is that Canada would change its law on dual citizenship, depriving Quebecers of their precious blue passports. But it might well give them a grace period of perhaps two years to move to Canada and keep their citizenship—or stay in Quebec and lose it.
6. How important is Quebec’s language divide for the vote?
Very. Polls show that francophones are almost evenly divided on the question of sovereignty. But despite a quarter century of campaigning and cajoling, sovereigntists have made almost no inroads into the non-francophone vote. One recent poll found that among the 700,000 of Quebecers whose mother tongue is English, a scant two per cent intend to vote Yes—fewer, no doubt, than believe Elvis
Presley is alive. In 1980, there was an active committee of “Anglophones for the Yes” composed largely of intellectual leftwingers sympathetic to the PQ’s social-democratic leanings. Not even they have been heard from in this campaign, largely because the PQ’s move to the right and its checkered record in power during the past 15 years gives little reason for the dwindling band of English-speaking leftists to lend it their support for any cause.
7. What’s a win?
Officially, of course, 50 per cent plus one vote counts for either side. Most federalists, though, have insisted that the country cannot be broken up with a bare majority voting for separation on an unclear question. That is Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s position, although Reform’s Preston Manning has argued that federalists should make it clear to Quebecers that if they do vote Yes by a narrow margin, they are on their way out.
With polls showing the No side holding a comfortable lead, however, the more pressing question is what kind of win federalists need to claim a resounding victory. In 1980, the Yes forces won 40.9 per cent of the vote; if they get at least 45 per cent this time around, Parizeau & Co. are sure to claim a “moral victory” and argue that sovereignty continues to gain ground. For federalists, the key is to win a majority of the francophone vote. On the assumption that about 90 per cent of non-francophones vote No, pollsters say, that means the Yes side must win at least 45 per cent overall to claim that most French-speaking Quebecers voted for sovereignty. If they get that, they will live to fight another day.
Federalists are aiming to win a majority of francophone votes
8. Will this vote finally settle the issue?
Of course not—especially if the separatists top that magic 45-per-cent mark. Inevitably, in that case, they will argue that the anglophone and ethnic minority has thwarted the will of the French-speaking majority and the fight must go on towards an eventual third or fourth referendum. Parizeau warned an elite Toronto audience last November that the Quebec question is like a “never-ending visit to the dentist,” and Bouchard has served notice that sovereigntists will not fade away if they lose on Oct. 30. If they fall significantly below 45 per cent, however—and especially if they fail to match their 1980 result—the blow to the sovereignty movement could be mortal. The lack of enthusiasm for sovereignty among young people, the increasing confidence of francophones that their language is secure and an aging population would make it much harder for separatists to go on.
No matter what the outcome, though, even Quebec federalists will not let the issue rest. Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson cautions English-Canadians to expect his party to press Quebec’s so-called traditional demands for more autonomy if he regains power. The difference will be that Quebec’s constitutional bargaining power will be further reduced after a second referendum loss. Ironically, of course, it will be the sovereigntists themselves—who never tire of posing as the indefatigable champions of Quebec—who will have weakened their province so badly.
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