During my struggle to find serenity in the ebb and flow of my new limeño lifestyle, my country was coping with its own conundrum. We were both simultaneously undergoing an internal struggle of sorts, fighting our inner demons but maintaining an outer calm. Even when the whole world seems to be falling apart, it is important to appear in control. Kind of like a brilliant T-shirt I saw someone wearing on the street a while ago announcing: "God is coming. Look busy!" The world had to know both Canada and William Bickford still had their houses in order and our demeanour demonstrated a reassuring "business as usual". By October, I noticed my situation was not as serious as I had originally thought when the talk of town - Canadian embassy staff and expats - centred on Quebec and the probability of separation. I was shocked and could not believe anyone would want to break away from Canada as it portrayed a sort of utopian society from my experiences and acquired knowledge. A land of tolerance and diversity. Everyone was free to be himself or herself under the Maple Leaf. It became even more surprising when people who were not affected by this situation would approach me and ask about the actual causes for the troubles between the two different cultures: the Anglos and Quebec. I rapidly became an expert at only 14 on the subject.
|Pro-Federalist rally in Montreal, Quebec|
Quebec separatism has followed an historic trend resembling a ride on a roller coaster. The highs and lows are extremely noticeable. The highs generally occurred during times of economic difficulty (i.e. 1990s recession), international conflict (i.e. during the great wars, Quebecers opposed involvement or conscription), in-house boondoggles (i.e. Quebec not being recognized as a distinct society, or signing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) or meddling from people who should not get involved (i.e. Charles de Gaules infamous call to francophones "Long live free Quebec.") The lows, well that is slightly easier, you just don't hear any talk about it. In the mid-90s, The separatist machine seemed to be losing its momentum as the Parti Quebecois Premier, Jacques Parizeau, spearheaded his lifelong dream of achieving independence. At the Federal level, he enjoyed the support of Lucien Bouchard, representing the Bloc Quebecois in our House of Commons. Quite an incredible accomplishment that a party committed to secession is the second largest in Parliament. Prior to the October 30, 1995 referendum, they were central figures campaigning in favour of the "YES" (in favour of separation). Although a previous referendum had been shot down, to the discontent of the sovereigntists, they were committed to obtain a yes at all costs. Reality regarding the ramifications of an unfavourable vote for the rest of Canada, or the importance their provincial partner brought to the table in terms of economy, culture and history, had failed to set in, even in the final week leading up to the vote. Only the people of Quebec were allowed to decide their fate in the concert of nations.
The catalyst for the independence movement in Quebec was arguably the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, where institutions were largely reformed. The Roman Catholic church was dethroned as the main providers of health and education by a newly created and well-funded unionized public sector, increased control of the management of the economy and the nationalization of electricity production and distribution. This period gave birth to the Parti Quebecois committed to separatism as well as a small faction of Marxist separatists that undertook terrorist actions under the name of Front de libération du Québec. The spike of their activity came in the October Crisis in 1970 during which James Cross, a British diplomat, as well as Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte were both kidnapped with Laporte eventually being killed. He was found in the trunk of a car parked in the Quebec City Airport. In 1980, the first referendum failed - the question centred on political sovereignty with economic association. The second, in 1995, was designed to achieve full independence although the question on its own was rather ambiguous to say the least. Judge for yourselves:
"Do you agree that Québec 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 Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
Correct me if I am wrong, but this question is as crystal clear as the water of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill. Something that would perhaps made more sense in my opinion was to simply state something along the lines of: "Do you agree Quebec should become a sovereign nation and negotiate new treaties as a new player in the world economy”. Something clear in my mind is an all or nothing concept. When you decide to buy a brand new tv, do you buy a refurbished one with no warranty? In my mind, Quebec was selling a broken object to "its" people. Parizeau and his Parti Québécois government in 1995 proposed the bill in question to the Quebec National Assembly. It proposed to give the Assembly the power to declare the province sovereign with the exclusive power to pass all its laws, levy all its taxes and conclude all its treaties. It received a first reading but the final version of the bill depended on the results of the 1995 referendum. Had this become law after approval by the assembly, it would have served as the legal basis for the Quebec government to declare Quebec a sovereign country.
On the other side of the vote, the Federalist players were led by - in the words of Ahmad Rashad - my main man, Jean Chrétien, Daniel Johnson, leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, Jean Charest, leader of the Quebec Conservatives and Brian Tobin, then Federal Minister of Oceans and Fisheries. It seemed troublesome in the beginning that the Federalists had not taken their task very seriously. I recall some people mentioned our Prime Minister had gone golfing before the end of the season. The Federal Government in the possibility of a “YES” vote did little contingency planning. Some cabinet ministers had met to discuss scenarios such as referring the results to the Supreme Court. Senior civil servants considered the impact of the vote on issues such as territorial boundaries, federal debt, whether or not Chrétien, since elected in a Quebec riding, would be able to assure the Governor General he retained sufficient support within his party to remain Prime Minister. The Department of National Defence made preparations to increase security at some federal institutions and ordered our CF-18 aircraft out of Quebec, ensuring these would not be used as pawns in any future negotiations. The aboriginals in Quebec were also on the federalist side. First Nations chiefs claimed that joining an independent Quebec would violate international law, as their agreements were with the Canadian government. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come underlined the right of the Cree to self-determination by keeping their territories in Canada.
|Jacques Parizeau belting out his nationalist propaganda|
The day Quebec voted was an all-nighter for me. It was the first time in my pre-adult life my parents had allowed me to stay up as late as I wanted. After all, the fate of my country was at stake. Being a strong proponent of the French language, having attended schooling and tied to the culture, I was hoping the "NO" vote would win. I saw a strong Canada as one with Quebec. As Jean said in the House of Commons: "No Quebec? No Canada." It was a hard night's work watching the results coming in, always bordering the 50% margin sometimes slightly tipping toward the "Yes" and others to the "No". I had never been this nervous, even in an Argentina football match. By the time Montreal, the Outaouais region (right across the river from Ottawa), the First Nations and the Eastern Townships' votes came in, it was clear the Separatists had lost. Booyah! At the end of the night, the score was 50.58% (2,362,648 votes) for the NO and 49.42% (2,308,360 votes) for the YES camp. What an unbelievable night! Jacques Parizeau came on the big screen, almost in tears due to his defeat, delivering his speech to his supporters along with his resignation as Premier of Quebec. In his memoirs, he said if he had obtained a majority of 50% +1, he would have negotiated separation but that immigrants, aboriginals and other groups were responsible for the defeat. I suppose we did not see eye to eye in terms of multiculturalism, tolerance and diversity. I was just happy Canada survived intact and the dragon of separatism would go back to its deep slumber.