Ideas and Impressions: Recalling the 1995 referendum 25 years later

By Jason Moscovitz

Somehow, during the pandemic, we lose track of time and we lose track of the calendar and years gone by. My father recently told me he saw me on a documentary about the 25th anniversary of the second referendum campaign on Quebec separation held October 30, 1995. Thanks, Dad, for helping me remember.

When the 1995 referendum was called, I was covering an event with prime minister Jean Chrétien in Saskatoon where he boldly predicted the federalist vote for Canada would win with at least 60 per cent. His thinking was consistent with early polling and it appeared nothing would prevent the federalists from getting cocky, not even an unusually high number of undecided voters. Federalist politicians and their allies in the business community began talking about “crushing the separatists once and for all,” but that kind of talk was sure to appeal to Quebecer’s pride.

Their disappointing polling numbers forced the separatists to think outside the box. Jacques Parizeau, the Quebec premier, had the courage and the insight to sideline himself in the interest of his beloved cause. Parizeau did the unthinkable when he asked the far more popular Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, to take his place as leader of the separatist campaign. Bouchard was named chief negotiator with Canada, and more importantly, he became the face, the voice and the soul of the Yes campaign. Undecided voters were getting ready to move. Momentum would steadily build on the independence side while federalist forces seemed stuck in a snowbank.

During the campaign, I spent time travelling between Ottawa and Montreal and on each visit, I saw the upsurge in Yes side support. It was a wave visible on store fronts, residential windows, and balconies. Quebec flags and brightly coloured yellow and green Yes posters were everywhere on street after street in French Montreal. Bouchard, who had thrashed Chrétien in Quebec in the federal election two years earlier, was even more popular at referendum time. Soon after the election, after losing a leg to flesh-eating disease, his story generated interest across Canada. His heroic return to the rigours of public life drew widespread admiration. In Quebec, Bouchard was a superstar.  Chrétien, never personally popular in Quebec, was no match for the messianic-like Bouchard. As voting day neared, within the federal government, a sense of panic set in.

The roots of federalist panic were multifold. The Quebec Liberal Party and the federal Liberal Party had serious messaging and coordinating issues which inevitably led to internal distrust and hostility. The problem for the federalists was the same as in the first referendum in 1980. The Liberals based in Ottawa spoke for Canada while the Liberals based in Quebec City spoke for a particular kind of Quebec with a special status within Canada. Jean Chrétien had a long memory about the victorious referendum night in 1980 when then-Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan angrily, but unsuccessfully, tried to prevent him from speaking. In 1995, it was even harder to figure out how the two allies could effectively work with each other since the fight against the separatists was so much fiercer.

There was also a foundational divide that drove Liberals apart. The federal Liberal Party in 1980, and again in 1995, felt a strategic need to scare Quebecers into wanting to stay in Canada while the leadership of the Quebec Liberal Party always feared excessive scare tactics would backfire. With the 1995 campaign badly off the rails, the big guns came from Ottawa to frighten Quebecers. As the campaign neared the end, Paul Martin, the federal finance minister, had a news conference at the Château Frontenac in Quebec City. Before he appeared, a news release was distributed which claimed one million Quebec jobs would be lost if Quebecers voted to leave Canada. There was no data to back it up. I read it and couldn’t believe it. I approached a political aide and asked her if the minister was really going to say one million jobs were on the line. She asked why I was asking. I told her she was about to find out.

Paul Martin followed through and the news conference was a disaster for him and the federal side. Unable to substantiate his giant-sized claim, the million lost jobs became a parody for a campaign in deep trouble. When the second-guessers came calling, Martin’s office blamed the million jobs on the Prime Minister’s Office. It wasn’t unusual for people in a troubled campaign to be at each other’s throats, but this was not just another election campaign. As voting day neared, Canada itself was on the chopping block.

It was hard to believe it was happening because it happened so quickly. It was hard to understand if Quebecers really wanted to separate or if they just got caught up in the moment. How many just wanted to send a message to the rest of Canada, that for them, Quebec would always and forever come first? I remember asking a prominent pollster in the last days of the campaign if strategic voting could get out of hand. He asked what I meant. I replied, “Is it possible enough Quebecers will wake up on voting day and decide to send a message that inadvertently leads to separation?” He said, “Not likely.”

October 30, 1995, sitting next to Peter Mansbridge in the old Windsor Hotel ballroom in downtown Montreal, analyzing the referendum results on CBC Television will always have a special place in my memory. Every time I pass the Windsor Hotel I think of that night. I think of the less-than-one per cent that stood in the way of Parizeau’s detailed plan, which he claimed France would have embraced, to declare Quebec independence at the United Nations.

I recall the Quebec separation option leading during the first 90 minutes of the broadcast. That’s the story we were reporting, possible separation, but there is a science to these things. Our CBC experts calculated that for the separatist side to win, it absolutely needed a certain percentage in the ridings that were more than 90 per cent French-speaking. I did a computer search of five of those ridings and saw the Yes side coming up short. I looked at five predominantly English-speaking ridings and saw the returns were inexplicably slow. When I was sure of myself, I let Mansbridge know I had something new to report. I was able to tell Canada, Canada wasn’t done yet and likely wouldn’t be.

It was 25 years ago when my neck, and far more importantly Canada as we know it, was saved by a hair that amounted to 0.5 per cent. It was certainly a moment in history to remember.