Ref­er­en­dum RE­DUX

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Barry Craig

FOR many Cana­di­ans, mak­ing sense of Que­bec’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape is as likely as Greg Selinger and Brian Pal­lis­ter dou­ble-dat­ing. But Chan­tal Hébert, in her per­cep­tive book tries her damn­d­est to help us un­der­stand this be­guil­ing place, a part of Canada some con­sider more a nurs­ery of de­mand­ing off­spring than a prov­ince, a nurs­ery that nearly 20 years ago came ra­zor-thin-close to pick­ing up its toys and leav­ing home. It is over this sem­i­nal event — the 1995 Que­bec ref­er­en­dum — that writer Hébert, with the help of broad­caster/ for­mer Lib­eral MP Jean Lapierre, poses the fol­low­ing cap­ti­vat­ing ques­tion to 18 prin­ci­pal politi­cians who were af­fected by the Que­bec in­de­pen­dence vote, both for and against: What would you have done back then if the sovereign­tists had won? While you might think that try­ing to an­swer this hy­po­thet­i­cal would bloat most peo­ple quicker than pou­tine, th­ese co-au­thors com­bine their an­a­lyt­i­cal skills and po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to paint an imag­i­nary and plau­si­ble can­vas of what-if. Thanks to Hébert’s brush, the re­sult­ing pic­ture is both be­liev­able and re­veal­ing, and worth much, much more than a pass­ing look. As a re­sult, The Morn­ing After prob­a­bly brings us closer to un­der­stand­ing our coun­try, and es­pe­cially our Que­bec — surely a good thing. Hébert is a cred­i­ble po­lit­i­cal ob­server in both print and tele­vi­sion, Lapierre a re­spected po­lit­i­cal broad­caster and for­mer Que­bec politi­cian. The cam­paign started out with the fed­er­al­ists ahead (and smug about it). But with the en­try of the bril­liant, almost-Churchillian Lu­cien Bouchard for the sovereign­tists, the Yes side came so, so close to win­ning and lost by a sliver at the wire — about one per cent of the vote. The Chré­tien gov­ern­ment sighed and the PQ gov­ern­ment cried. As Hébert ex­plains, the so-thin win by the fed­er­al­ists in 1995 kept alive the PQ’s dream of an in­de­pen­dent Que­bec un­til it was put out to pas­ture in­def­i­nitely with the de­feat of the PQ gov­ern­ment in the April 2014 provin­cial elec­tion. The vote was a clear mes­sage: Que­be­cers don’t want another ref­er­en­dum right now. Prob­a­bly be­cause they’re now out of the game, almost all of the po­lit­i­cal heavy­weights in­ter­viewed by the Hébert/Lapierre duo about the ’95 vote and the lead-up to it are ar­rest­ing in their can­dor. Some ex­am­ples: As then-premier of Saskatchewan, Roy Ro­manow re­veals that be­fore the vote he put to­gether a su­per-se­cret group of bu­reau­crats to ex­am­ine all sce­nar­ios if sovereign­tists won — in­clud­ing whether Saskatchewan too should quit the coun­try, or maybe pro­pose a con­fed­er­a­tion of the four western prov­inces. Ralph Klein, the late premier of Al­berta, would have noth­ing to do with the idea and pri­vately told Ro­manow such talk was “trea­son.”

Did a guy in another coun­try help Canada stay Canada? Since the fed­er­al­ists at the end needed all the help they could get, then-U.S. pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton came out and pub­licly and with­out reser­va­tion sup­ported the ex­ist­ing Cana­dian con­fed­er­a­tion. Ac­cord­ing to then-Cana­dian am­bas­sador to the U.S. Ray­mond Chré­tien (a nephew of then-PM Jean), Clin­ton’s support had an in­flu­ence — he was widely ad­mired in Que­bec. The in­fer­ence of Chré­tien’s re­marks is that with the vote so ag­o­niz­ingly tight, it is pos­si­ble a U.S. pres­i­dent saved Canada.

The ir­re­press­ible Sheila Copps, then deputy prime min­is­ter, a po­si­tion she says wasn’t worth two cents of in­flu­ence, ex­plains: “I wanted to fight for my coun­try and I was told to fuck off and go away.” (The gov­ern­ment had de­creed from the start that the fed­eral fight to save the coun­try wouldn’t in­volve the rest of Canada’s MPs.)

Brian Tobin, then a fed­eral cab­i­net min­is­ter and Chré­tien loy­al­ist, de­scribes just how po­tent Lu­cien Bouchard was in cam­paign­ing for the sovereign­tist side. The No side picked a fight with the sovereign­tists by de­scrib­ing them as “the big, bad sep­a­ratists,” By con­trast, Tobin says Bouchard’s mes­sage was a “pretty bril­liant” com­mon­sense and mod­er­at­ing ar­gu­ment that the av­er­age Que­be­cer could eas­ily embrace. “[Bouchard] was not say­ing an­glo­phones in the rest of Canada are ter­ri­ble peo­ple or bad peo­ple and we need to get away from them. What he was say­ing to Que­be­cers was that [the an­glo­phones] are ac­tu­ally nice peo­ple and they must be get­ting tired of us be­cause we can’t seem to make up our mind and it’s re­ally un­fair to them and it is time to have a clear an­swer.” Se­duc­tive stuff that came oh, so close to win­ning. Mean­while, if you want to know what a cau­tious-speak­ing Jean Chré­tien thinks to­day of the 1995 ker­fuf­fle, you’ll have to buy the book. The Morn­ing After is the anatomy of a neardeath ex­pe­ri­ence for the coun­try. It also is nir­vana for po­lit­i­cal junkies. Barry Craig came to Canada from Scot­land and is for­ever glad he did. His birth­place votes Sept. 18 on

its in­de­pen­dence.

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