Pres. Clinton and the Quebec Referendum

It is twenty-five years ago that Canadians experienced a brief national nightmare, the campaign leading up to the October 30, 1995 Quebec Referendum on sovereignty-association. The Non (today we might call it Remain) side won by a slim margin of 1 percent, 54,000 votes out of 4.8 million cast, with an astonishing 94 percent voter turnout.

The referendum comes to mind not because of its silver anniversary but because I am writing about a CBC/Radio-Canada documentary entitled Breaking Point/Point de Rupture. Among, other things, the program’s researchers uncovered the role the US Government played in the campaign.

The federal government’s most significant movable military asset in Quebec was a squadron of F-16s based in Bagotville. The government wanted them secretly moved out of the province. Flying them to other Canadian bases would likely have been noticed, and the political optics would have been horrible. They were flown to US bases and secrecy was maintained.

US Ambassador to Canada James Blanchard, a former Democratic Governor of Michigan, watching the closely-fought campaign and, believing that it would be in the US’s interests if Quebec remained within Canada, appealed to President Clinton to depart from the US Government’s traditional neutrality. Five days before the referendum, at a press briefing Clinton clearly came out in favour of the Non campaign in these words:

I can tell you that a strong and united Canada has been a wonderful partner for the United States. … Now the people of Quebec will have to cast their votes as their lights guide them. But Canada has been a great model for the rest of the world … and I hope that can continue.

These stories lead me to a frightening thought-experiment. What if Donald Trump had been president at the time? Two outcomes are likely. Trump might have demanded some quid pro quo in exchange for endorsing the Non campaign, likely involving support for his re-election campaign or personal enrichment. Alternatively, Trump might have supported the Oui campaign to bring about a weak and divided Canada, just as he has sought to weaken and divide Europe.

This is obviously relevant to the current US election campaign. Trump’s continual efforts to weaken the US’s traditional allies and disrupt alliances have earned their disdain and condemnation. While the US election campaign is focused on domestic issues, it would be helpful if voters could be made to understand that weakening traditional allies and disrupting alliances will ultimately weaken, not strengthen, the US.

To return to the documentary itself, Breaking Point/Point de Rupture was a 2005 co-production by CBC and Radio-Canada presented in both languages that attempted to be scrupulously fair to both sides. Surprisingly, it is not available for sale on Amazon, nor is it available on the CBC website or on CBC Gem. It is, however, available on YouTube in its entirety in English for free because someone using the name Hashi posted it. Here are links to the first and second 90-minute segments. Why the CBC is not doing more to preserve its own political narratives is not clear to me and is one of the questions I raise in my chapter on Canadian political narratives.

Breaking Point is very thorough in its treatment of the story material, presenting short biographies of the three main protagonists (Jean Chretien, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard), explaining the victory of the Parti Quebecois in the 1994 provincial election, outlining the internal disagreements within the separatist movement about the wording of the question and date of the referendum, depicting the key events of the campaign such as major rallies and the James Bay Cree’s own referendum (which overwhelmingly favoured separating their land from Quebec and remaining in Canada), and revealing behind-the-scenes planning by ministers in both the Quebec and federal governments for how to respond to either a Oui or a Non victory. The latter turned up some fascinating tactics such as the Quebec Government hoarding $17 billion in short-term financial assets. The documentary is enlivened by extensive interviews with all the major leaders and their political advisers, with the unfortunate omission of Lucien Bouchard, who chose to be silent about politics after resigning as Premier of Quebec in 2001. In my view, the documentary is marred by the use of an anachronistic omniscient narrator, an unseen voice telling the audience what would happen next and announcing what various individuals were thinking just before showing interviews in which they revealed those thoughts.

As in many other Canadian political narratives I discuss in the chapter, none of the main protagonists, all politicians, comes off very well. Jean Chretien fails to anticipate the strength of separatist sentiment and is panicky in response. Jacques Parizeau is too clever by half, naively believing that his “great game” of attempting to persuade the French Government to recognize an independent Quebec immediately after a Oui victory will lead the US Government to follow suit. And his infamous jibe that the Non victory was due to money and ethnic votes negates the claim that separatism is a movement of anyone other than pure laine French Canadians. Lucien Bouchard’s charismatic leadership is undermined by his spiteful reaction to Jean Chretien’s speech to the nation. Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin’s initiative to organize a pan-Canadian rally in Montreal in support of the Non campaign makes its participants feel efficacious, but is seen by many Quebeckers as inappropriate meddling as well as a violation of the spending limits in the referendum law. After the rally support for the Non campaign, which had been increasing, peaks.

The documentary ends with a text screen referring to the federal government’s subsequent event sponsorship program in Quebec, designed to increase its visibility, but which backfired spectacularly because of a lack of managerial and financial control, and which was investigated by the Gomery commission of inquiry. As a result of the commission’s hearings, support for sovereignty among Quebeckers rose to over 50 percent. This is clearly ironic and in keeping with the tone of the rest of the documentary.

Since 2005 support for sovereignty has continuously fallen. In effect, this was a documentary about the high-water mark of sovereigntist sentiment made at the point it briefly touched that mark again. Were the documentary made later, it would have had to deal with the subsequent sea-change in sovereigntist sentiment, which would have affected how the story material was interpreted and presented. Perhaps this is why the CBC has allowed Breaking Point to crumble in the vault. So thank you, Hashi – whoever you are – for posting it for the benefit of students of Canadian history.


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