For the 7,000 cheering Quebec separatists who gathered in Montreal’s cavernous Palais des Congrès to witness the birth of a country, referendum night began well. Less than five minutes after the polls closed at 8 p.m., the first results from the tiny Magdalen Islands made the crowd go wild.
“We want our country,” they chanted rhythmically, over and over, as the giant television screens mounted at the Yes campaign’s headquarters showed the inhabitants of the faraway islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence voting heavily in favor of independence. Less than an hour later, however, the sovereigntist faithful had grown strangely quiet as the realization slowly dawned that Quebec’s referendum had not created a new nation—but rather had deeply divided the one that already exists.
By the time the results began to trickle in from the metropolitan Montreal region, where half of the province’s five million voters live, it became apparent that Quebec, as all the pollsters had predicted, was heading for an almost even split between the forces of federalism and those of separatism. With 90 per cent of the votes counted shortly before 10 p.m., the No side was leading with slightly more than 50 per cent of the vote. And there was no doubt about the reason why. As anticipated, Quebec’s non-francophone population voted overwhelmingly against Premier Jacques Parizeau’s independence plan, raising the prospect of a society perilously split along language and ethnic lines. Parizeau’s bitter comment that the Yes side had lost because of “money and the ethnic vote” only underlined that dangerous divide.
The jeers inside the Palais des Congrès told the story. As the results in riding after riding from the city’s heavily anglophone and allophone areas flashed onto the giant screens, the now-sombre crowd booed lustily. And when, at 10:20 p.m., the television networks announced that, for the second time in Quebec’s modern history, the province’s voters had opted to remain in Canada rather than embark
on the path towards independence, the separatist throng fell eerily silent. They watched, almost stunned, as celebrating federalist supporters, waving Canadian and Quebec flags, cheered and shouted at the No side’s headquarters nearby. “Quebecers have made their choice,” Quebec’s Treasury Board president Pauline Marois told the crestfallen sovereigntists, who responded with cries of “No. No. We want our country.”
Marois, who was close to tears herself as she observed the emotion among many in the crowd, said they would have to wait for another day, and she appealed for “maturity” in the difficult days ahead. Deputy premier Bernard Landry was less generous. Pointing to the overwhelming No vote among non-francophones, Landry warned what he called the “cultural communities” to “think long and profoundly” about their role in thwarting the will of Quebec’s francophone majority. In fact, most francophone voters did vote in favor of independence, or at least in favor of the new partenariat—the
partnership—between Quebec and the rest of Canada that the sovereigntist forces had proposed.
The fact that a majority of French-speaking Quebecers demonstrated their disaffection with the current state of the federal system raised difficult problems for the future. Both Parizeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard served notice that their side’s strong showing meant that the sovereignty movement would not fade away—but would continue to press for more powers for Quebec, and eventually launch a new push for independence.
In the short run, it was clear that Bouchard himself would remain a powerful force on the national scene. The Bloc leader was largely responsible for the Yes side’s near-victory, a factor that has already been widely recognized within the separatist ranks. Given the close referendum result, he is likely to remain in office as the head of the Bloc in Ottawa, if only to stand poised to support the aggressive policies that Parizeau’s Parti Québécois government is sure to pursue.
Bouchard himself made it clear that he has no intention of giving up the fight. Appearing before the disappointed Yes supporters, he told them to “keep hope because the next time it will turn out right. And that next time could come much more quickly than we think.” The Bloc leader managed to rouse cheers and even a brief outburst of
song, confessing that “the hour is difficult” while quickly adding that federalists who think that the independence movement has been defeated are badly mistaken. “There are people in Ottawa who will feel free to do what they please,” he said. ‘They are wrong. Let’s tell them that they have not pulled the sovereignty project up by the roots. It is in too many Quebecers to be stilled now.”
As for the Quebec premier, he is likely to remain at the helm of the PQ, at least for the time being. But his provocative referendum-night performance in blaming non-francophone voters for the Yes side’s defeat cast new doubt on his longterm future as party leader and premier. There were question marks, too, over the political fu-
ture of several members of his cabinet. When Parizeau convenes his ministers, he is likely to carry out a full-scale housecleaning. Among the first to go, observers said, will be Restructuring Minister Richard Le Hir, whose mishandling of economic studies of independence almost destroyed the Yes campaign even before it started.
Once the PQ cabinet is shuffled, Parizeau will reconvene the national assembly, likely some time late in November. Then, the government will likely launch a number of initiatives, attempting to gain piecemeal what could not be won in the referendum. The first item will be an attempt to wrest manpower training from the purview of the federal government. After that, Parizeau will have to tackle his province’s difficult financial situation, launching the same kind of deficit reduction and cuts to social i services that other provinces have f already embarked upon. That will E be doubly difficult in view of the g political debt Parizeau now owes to u organized labor as a result of trade union support in the referendum
campaign. But he already has a handy scapegoat—the federal government.
He may also target other scapegoats in the coming months. Parizeau, his voice hoarse, singled out Quebec’s minorities for the Yes side’s referendum loss. He told the cheering throng in the Palais des Congrès that “we received 60 per cent of the francophone vote this time and next time we’ll get 62 or 63 or 64 per cent of it.” While the crowd shouted the traditional separatist chant of “Le Québec aux Québécois,” Parizeau vowed: “Don’t forget that three-fifths of us voted Yes. It wasn’t quite enough, but very soon it will be enough. Our country is within our grasp. We are going to demonstrate that we are able, even if we don’t have a country as yet, that we will raise a French society that has its heart in the right place, and in the long run, finally, we will have our own revenge and we will have our own country.” For many people, both inside Quebec and in the rest of the country, who had hoped that the vote might finally settle the issue, Parizeau’s vow could hardly be less welcome. □
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