The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and The Day That Almost Was by Chantal Hebert with Jean Lapierre, Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0345807625, 320 pp., $21.74 (Hardcover), $12.79 (Kindle).
The Morning After is “iffy history.” It is akin to alternate science fiction “history” hypothesizing what would have happened if England’s Henry VIII had mature sons, Lee had won at Gettysburg, or Hitler had been assassinated. These can be speculative fun, but Morning After addresses a much more proximate issue: What would Canada’s political actors have done if the “yes” side of the 1995 sovereignty referendum had prevailed?
Given the recently concluded Scotland referendum, the infinitely tighter Quebec sovereignty referendum (No: 51.6 percent and Yes: 49.4 percent), even 20 years past, provides some fascinating insights to the politics of what-could-have-happened.
The authors are well qualified. Hebert is Canada’s premier bilingual journalist and political commentator; she wrote the text. Lapierre is a former federal Member of Parliament, member of two Liberal Party cabinets, but also a founder of the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Their tactic for the book was to interview in depth many key players; either or both Hebert or Lapierre knew them professionally, often for many years.
Consequently, their list of interviews included two Canadian prime ministers (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin); four Quebec premiers (Lucien Bouchard, Jacques Parizeau, Jean Charest, and Daniel Johnson); five provincial premiers (Brian Tobin [Newfoundland], Roy Romanow [Saskatchewan], Mike Harris and Bob Rae [Ontario]; and Frank McKenna [New Brunswick]. Additionally, they interviewed the head of the major federalist opposition party (Preston Manning [Reform]), the Canadian ambassador in Washington (Raymond Chretienâ€”the prime minister’s nephew but also a professional career diplomat), the leader of the second separatist party (Mario Dumont), and several minor players whose positions appeared bureaucratically important but whose roles were secondary/tertiary.
As I was Political Minister Counselor in Ottawa from 1992-96, I had a front row seat for the entire sovereignty/referendum effort. I met constantly during the period with federalists and separatists albeit it primarily at lower levels than those now tapped by Hebert/Lapierre. U.S. policy for the referendum was carefully designed and “tweaked” during the referendum campaign. Obviously, we had no interest in a divided Canada. Our “mantra,” expressing close relations with the existing Canada but recognizing that the future was for its citizens to decide, made USG preference clear to anyone with a third grade education. Almost equally important, however, was the need not to be perceived as interfering with Canada’s decision.
What was most surprising from Morning After was the sense of confusion on all sides of the referendum contest. Virtually no one had given serious, coordinated thought to what a “yes” vote would mean in the short or long term. For some elements, notably federalists, the absence of planning reflected deliberate decision. Plans for “failure” would leak, implying that federalists expected “yes” would winâ€”and discourage those fighting for “no.” (To a degree, the USG followed the same approach; we deliberately did not revisit earlier studies hypothesizing an independent Quebec.)
Moreover, there was almost blithe arrogance in the federalist “no” camp throughout much of the campaign. Polls showed them substantially ahead, and federalists expected a repeat of the 1980 separatist referendum that “no” won handily.
Lucien Bouchard, however, was a game changer; when he moved into a leadership role for separatists, “yes” surged. Indeed, a variety of polls placed it substantially in the lead (shades of the Scottish referendum 20 years later). Among federalists, panic prevailed with Chretien offering a variety of inducements including constitutional commitment to identify Quebec as a “distinct society” with commensurate additional political powers.
But the prospect of victory didn’t generate cohesion among separatists. Clearly, Parizeau anticipated a rapid move to independence, unilaterally if necessary, following perfunctory consultation with Ottawa. His troika mates, Bouchard and Dumont, however, hypothesized extended negotiations with Ottawa to enhance greatly Quebec’s autonomyâ€”but independence only if federalists were recalcitrant.
The federalists were in far greater disarray. It reflected the frequently incoherent, ad hoc effort throughout the campaign wherein many of the senior and secondary figures knew little or nothing about the plans of Chretien and his inner circle. Individuals interviewed noted their private thinking at the time, but no coordinated “Plan B” existed.
Thus a “yes” vote would have demonstrated total failure by the Liberal/Chretien government, putting Chretien’s status as prime minister into serious question as well as the many Quebec-resident Liberal ministers. Reform leader Manning was clearly hostile to having Quebeckers negotiating with Quebeckers over the fate of Canada when Western Canadians had been frozen out of the federalist referendum campaign. What would have been done by whom and how remain essentially unknown as Jean Chretien, even 20 years later, declined to discuss specifics.
So there were internal musings over whether “50 percent plus one” was sufficient to justify breaking up the country. And whether the question was overly ambiguous (it implied Quebec would consult with Ottawa). Clearly, federalist opposition leader Manning would have sought to drive a hard bargainâ€”if willing to bargain at all. There appears also to have been musing over creating a national unity government, including individuals such as New Brunswick premier McKenna, but this option went unmentioned by Chretien during his interview.
Only two senior figures appeared to be planning vigorously for “yes.” Finance Minister Paul Martin would have faced major challenges keeping Canadian finances/economy from heavy losses. He had a planning team beavering away to manage this challenge. And Saskatchewan Premier Romanow was investigating mechanisms to protect his province’s weak economy, perhaps in coordination with other Western provinces.
There are some curious elements to Morning After.* One is the absence of an interview with former Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was the most significant actor in the “constitution wars” during the decade leading to the referendum. Â The authors refer to him regularly, but give no reason for his non-inclusion. In a different vein, they interviewed no non-Canadians, particularly then U.S. Ambassador James Blanchard. For his part, Blanchard details in Behind the Embassy Door elements of his efforts during the campaign. Blanchard was pivotal in engaging President Clinton in the referendum campaign and sharpening the U.S. “mantra” to emphasize U.S. support for a united Canada.** Interestingly, Blanchard also had conversations with Manning during which Manning wanted to discuss dividing Canadian debt.
Hebert/Lapierre were fortunate that, 20 years after the fact, the principal participants are still alive and engaged. It demonstrates inter alia, that politics in Canada is a young person’s game—and that politicians are long-lived. Nevertheless, what we have is a political “Rashomon—Seven Samurai” story which changes with the recollection of each beholder.
*A minor but disappointing negative is the absence of an Index; the authors substitute an interesting but limited section addressing their relations with each of the principals. Hebert provided an Index for her earlier account of the 2006 Canadian election (French Kiss).
**But Morning After also illustrates Canadian attitudes and their differences with those of the United States. The option of maintaining national unity by force of arms is never mentioned. The Civil War resolved the U.S. national unity issue, presumably forever; there is no serious suggestion regarding breaking up the United States. For Canadians, “Canada” is nice to have, but not worth bloodshed to preserve.