October 30, 1995
27th Anniversary of Referendum on Quebec
The Rights of the Quebec Nation and a Modern Constitution for Quebec and Canada Are Still the Order of the Day
October 30, 2022 marks the 27th anniversary of the historic referendum vote held in 1995 on how to exercise the sovereignty of Quebec. It is instructive to review what took place at that time and its significance.
In the summer of 1995 the Parti Québécois (PQ) government led by Jacques Parizeau presented Bill 1, An Act Respecting the Future of Quebec to the Quebec National Assembly. Also known as the Sovereignty Bill, this bold move by the PQ government followed more than 20 years of failed inter-provincial conferences to recognize Quebec in Confederation and the refusal of the federal government to address Quebec’s demands for constitutional reforms.
The election of René Lévesque and a PQ government in 1976 clearly showed the desire of the Quebec people for recognition of their right to sovereignty and to control their economic, political, social and cultural rights and take a step forward to consolidate the gains of the Quiet Revolution.
Instead of recognizing the need to modernize the Constitution and recognize the demands of the Quebec people, the political elites in Canada did everything to try to isolate and attack these just demands and isolate Quebec. Led by the Trudeau Liberals, the backward federalist forces used René Lévesque’s referendum loss in 1980 to take the initiative to repatriate the Constitution in 1981 without the consent of Quebec, one of Canada’s “two founding nations.”
Through this manoeuvre, Pierre Elliott Trudeau sought to unilaterally diminish the role of the Quebec National Assembly and de facto take away Quebec’s veto within Confederation. The arrangement to give Quebec a veto was reached at the time of Confederation in 1867 to get Quebec to join itself to three other dominions seen to be predominantly “English” and “Protestant.” For this reason, Quebec’s jurisdiction over language rights and other matters were enshrined in the British North America Act 1867 in return for its participation in the arrangements of Confederation. How can a government of Canada declare that these arrangements can be changed without submitting it to a vote in Quebec?
When Trudeau sought to unilaterally patriate the Constitution in 1981, the PQ government immediately launched a court challenge. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the decision handed down stated that the patriation was legal but illegitimate. The Supreme Court agreed that reducing Quebec to the status of one of the ten provinces was a radical change from the arrangements reached in 1867, which were a balance between rights as practised in 1867.
This decision of the Supreme Court led to the infamous “night of the long knives” of November 4, 1981 when Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien used the occasion of a federal-provincial conference to make deals with seven of the provinces behind the backs of the Quebec delegates in the middle of the night. Chrétien was Trudeau’s Minister of Justice where he was responsible for supporting the “No” forces in the Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty and, as Minister for Constitutional Negotiations, he drafted and organized the passage of the 1982 Charter of Rights and the repatriation of the Constitution.
This deceitful act of the Trudeau government was intended to further isolate Quebec and to make legal what had been declared illegitimate by the Supreme Court. Quebec alone opposed the repatriation of the Constitution.
These destructive events have never been forgotten by the people of Quebec and cannot be made to go away because the need to modernize the Constitution is objective. The manner in which the Anglo-Canadian establishment and institutions chose to deal with the matter also showed the viciousness of the Liberal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau towards the just demands of the Quebec people for new arrangements and a modern constitution and started a new chapter of attempts to marginalize Quebec using every conceivable basis.
Bill 1 of the PQ government was the result of the work of sovereigntist forces to repair the damage done by Trudeau’s attack on Quebec’s rights. The stated purpose of the bill was to give the National Assembly the power to declare the sovereignty of Quebec and to have “the exclusive power to pass its laws, levy all its taxes, and conclude all its treaties.” The bill called for the drafting of a new Quebec Constitution, maintaining Quebec’s current borders, the creation of Quebec citizenship, use of the Canadian dollar and continuity of current laws and social benefits. The bill contained the requirement that the Government of Quebec propose a partnership treaty with the rest of Canada based on a “Tripartite Agreement,” signed on June 12, 1995, by PQ leader Jacques Parizeau, Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard and Action Démocratique du Québec leader Mario Dumont. This agreement outlined a series of proposals a sovereign Quebec would make to Canada to govern relations between the countries.
The bill had widespread support in Quebec society because the conditions showed that the time was right to declare the sovereignty of Quebec. Progressive forces in Quebec and Canada also recognized that what was urgently needed was a new economic and political partnership between Quebec and Canada. The Quebec referendum of 1995 had an important role to play in overcoming the main roadblock to progress which was Liberal (and federal) intransigence against the sovereignty of Quebec and against democratic renewal and a new economic and political partnership between Quebec and Canada.
Discontent with the standing constitutional arrangements had grown across Canada, not just in Quebec. The 1990 Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, in which people participated in large numbers across Canada, showed that the Canadian people did not trust the politicians to draft the constitution and demanded substantial changes to the political process.
The fact that the repatriated Constitution of 1982 did not guarantee political, social and economic rights has also given rise to protests and constitutional challenges. Indigenous peoples across Canada continue to demand the recognition of their hereditary rights. Investigations into abuses of the Indian residential school system in the early 1990s exposed like never before the racist colonial legacy of Canada towards the Indigenous peoples, the negation of their rights and the conditions of poverty and neglect to which they have been abandoned. Historical fights for Indigenous land claims left unresolved by the constitutional arrangements in place directly confronted large energy projects of monopolies and public utilities such as Hydro-Québec on unceded land. The 1990 “Oka Crisis” was the beginning of a new resistance movement of the First Nations for their rights.
The necessity for change had spread throughout society into political and intellectual circles as well as the labour unions and in all regions of Quebec.
The Progressive Conservative Party led by Brian Mulroney gave rise to the Meech Lake Accord which had the initial approval of the premiers with a deadline for final provincial approval of June 23, 1990. Although the Meech Lake Accord was inadequate in many ways, many in Quebec supported it because it restored Quebec’s right to a veto, contained a distinct society clause which was thought would lead to reconciliation with Quebec and the possibility of more constitutional reform.
Lucien Bouchard, who went on to found the Bloc Québécois in 1991, in his book On the Record explained that he joined the Conservative Party in 1988 as a last attempt at “national reconciliation” after Trudeau’s 1981/82 betrayal. He said he worked with the Conservatives because Mulroney had committed to “repairing the damage done to Quebec and restore its place in the constitution with a new sharing of powers.”
The subsequent failure of the Meech Lake Accord made it clear to Quebec once again that the political elites in Canada would not permit even a watered down recognition of the rights of Quebec to see the light of day. New Brunswick and Newfoundland went back on their original approval and during the debate across the country Quebec was viciously attacked. The Progressive Conservative Party appointed a parliamentary committee chaired by Jean Charest to ostensibly examine the provinces’ demands with the result that essential elements of the accord were modified or eliminated. The Chrétien Liberals and others inspired by their past leader Trudeau accused the Quebec people of being racists and traitors. A clear message was sent to Quebec that it faced an ultimatum to give up its rights.
After the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, the Quebec Liberal government of Robert Bourassa in cooperation with Jacques Parizeau and the PQ established the Bélanger-Campeau Commission, an enlarged inter-parliamentary committee of the Quebec National Assembly and the House of Commons which included municipal and school officials, union leaders, representatives from the arts and business people.
With a total of 36 commissioners, the work began in the autumn of 1990 and received 600 submissions, consulted 35 specialists and heard from 235 groups and organizations. Through the work of the Bélanger-Campeau Commission it quickly became clear that a vast majority of Quebeckers in various organizations rejected the old federalist system.
With the ongoing discussion in Quebec on the need for real constitutional change and the recognition of the rights of the Quebec nation, the Bloc succeeded in defining its role to defend the interests of the Quebec nation in the federal parliament. Under the circumstances this captured the imagination of the Quebec people and in the 1993 federal election, the Bloc won 54 out of the 75 seats in Quebec and became the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. This great electoral victory of the Quebec people created a crisis in the federal parliament from which it never recovered. For the first time in its history the Official Opposition in the Parliament was not a representative of the political elite in Canada but the direct representative of the Quebec nation. Neither Chrétien nor any other Liberal or Conservative could claim to represent Quebec and for the first time in its history, Parliament had Quebec sovereigntists speaking on their own behalf in Ottawa.
The Parliament lost its equilibrium based on a two-party system — one party in power and one in opposition which, together, claimed to represent the people of all of the country.
It was amidst this vibrant atmosphere throughout Quebec that the PQ government of Jacques Parizeau, elected in 1994, took the initiative by calling for a referendum on sovereignty in 1995.
The referendum bill passed first reading in the National Assembly and a copy of the draft bill was sent by the government to every Quebec household along with a copy of the Parizeau-Bouchard-Dumont Tripartite Agreement in preparation for the referendum.
In September 1995, Jacques Parizeau announced in the National Assembly that the referendum would be held on October 30 and presented the wording of the question being posed to the Quebec people:
“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995? Yes or No.”
During the lead-up to the referendum, the Chrétien Liberals along with Daniel Johnson, then-leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, remained the main obstacles to a sober discussion about the needs of the Quebec nation and a modern constitution for Canada. They used lies, distortions and threats and blackmail to stop any sensible discussion from taking place.
The establishment forces engaged in open violations of the Referendum Law especially in the area of spending limits which were violated by the “No” side with impunity.
Verdicts about these violations were finally investigated in 2006 when Judge Bernard Grenier was asked by Elections Quebec to investigate Option Canada, a lobby group associated with big business and the Liberal and Conservative Parties, and allegations of illegal spending by the “No” side during the 1995 Referendum. He determined that $539,000 was illegally spent by the “No” committee during the referendum, not including the October 27, 1995 “unity rally.”
Following the release of Grenier’s report in 2007, there were several demands, including from the Bloc Québécois and the authors of Les Secrets d’Option Canada, urging a full federal investigation of the violation of Quebec’s referendum law. All demands for a federal inquiry were dismissed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The results of the referendum are well known. The difference in the vote was less than one per cent yet the Chrétien Liberals arrogantly called it a victory over “separatism” and refused to even acknowledge the serious outstanding constitutional questions which needed to be resolved.
To this day the demands of the people for new arrangements and a new constitution for a modern society remain unanswered.
In their final year in office the Harper Conservatives together with the Liberal Party continued to deny the national rights of the Quebec people and the need for a new constitution. The Harper Conservatives passed Bill C-51, An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Department of Justice Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act, and even threatened to criminalize the movement for sovereignty in Quebec by branding as traitors those who were said to threaten the “territorial integrity of Canada.” This law was kept in place by the Trudeau Liberals who reversed their electoral promises to make significant changes to it.
Following the Referendum, it became common practice to hear all the cartel parties with seats in the House of Commons, the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and even the Green Party, refuse to address the need for constitutional change. They all claimed that nobody was interested in opening the Constitution, that discussion on the Constitution would revive old controversies and would be counter-productive.
Issues like the abolition of the Senate, cutbacks in the federal health transfer and equalization payments, the Clarity Act (which declared Quebec cannot secede from Canada unilaterally; however, a clear vote on a clear question to secede in a referendum should lead to negotiations between Quebec and the rest of Canada for secession) and the role of the premiers’ meetings, were all discussed as single issues ignoring the obvious need for a modern constitution with new arrangements to replace an outmoded BNA Act imposed by British colonialism in the 19th century.
The 27th anniversary of the 1995 Quebec Referendum comes in the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II and proclamation of Charles III as King of Canada. The refusal of 14 Quebec Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) to swear allegiance to the King of England, said to also be King of Canada and of Quebec, calls for a broad discussion on the need for a modern constitution that benefits the people by enabling them to find their bearings within the barrage of disinformation which has already been unleashed in the House of Commons on this question.
(Historical account based on an article by Louis Lang written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the referendum published by TML Weekly Information Project Vol. W45 No. 33)