This country’s history features plenty of dramatic moments. The evening hours of Oct. 30, 1995, were surely among our most harrowing.
Bolstered by one of the great political orators of the past half-century – Lucien Bouchard, whose stunning recovery from flesh-eating disease provided messianic overtones – the leaders of the Quebec sovereignty movement woke up convinced the day would be theirs. It very nearly was.
The federalist option would prevail in a provincial referendum by 54,228 votes, out of more than 4.7 million cast – a head-on collision narrowly avoided, 50.6 per cent to 49.4 per cent.
In hindsight, it’s tempting to think of that night as Quebec sovereignty’s high-water mark; that then-premier Jacques Parizeau’s postreferendum night ascribing the “Yes” side’s loss to “money and ethnic votes” marked the beginning of a gentle but inexorable downward trajectory.
That’s a mistake. Recent revelations demonstrate just how ready Mr. Parizeau and his allies were for an affirmative answer to his famously muddled ballot question. The government of France and other nations had been solicited to immediately recognize Quebec as a country. In all likelihood, they would have done so.
As well, tens of billions of dollars in liquid assets had been stockpiled to forestall a bank run. The sovereigntists were serious about planning for the breakup of the federation. They still are.
The best that can be said today is that waning support among younger voters has ushered the traditional standard-bearers of the sovereignty movement down the cul-de-sac that is ethnic nationalism. Pierre Karl Péladeau may well maintain the Parti Québécois’ disastrous course from the last provincial election and wreck his party on the shoals.
But others will pick up the cause and reinvent it; like other political currents, Quebec sovereignty has atomized. The absence of existential angst is easily mistaken for hopefulness, but an inconvenient fact remains: Quebec remains outside the constitutional fold, at least formally.
Two decades after the referendum the failed Meech Lake Accord begat, the historical wound has not fully mended.
See also: “Election vote in Quebec should cause renewed worry in sovereigntist ranks” (The Toronto Star)
See also: “20 years later, support for separatism in the tank: poll” (CJAD 800)