William Watson: The ghost of referendums past and who really won in 1995

William Watson: The ghost of referendums past and who really won in 1995

With new measures reducing the rights of English-speakers, and no response from Ottawa, the Quebec separatists may as well have won

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After roast turkey with stuffing, sweet potatoes topped with marshmallow, cherry cake and perhaps one eggnog too many, I retired Christmas evening to the living-room sofa for a postprandial nap. My fitful over-caloried snooze was interrupted by the arrival of a spectre who announced himself as the “Ghost of Quebec Referendums Past,” a droll little fellow with nicotine-stained fingers and a bald pate badly sheathed in a comb-over as long as a scarf.

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Wreathed in tobacco smoke and jabbing his cigarette in my direction, he said he was going to show me what would have happened if the Oui side had won the Quebec referendum in 1995. With a snap of his fingers the TV came on and started rolling through this alternative history.

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Premier Jacques Parizeau, sober as a judge, made a gracious referendum-night victory speech, reassuring ethnic voters and monied investors that they were more than welcome to join in Quebecers’ exciting new enterprise and that the rule of law would prevail as Quebec proceeded to independence, which, after a 62-38 vote in favour, it was now clearly entitled to do. Jubilant Oui voters literally danced in Montreal’s streets while friendly police officers cautioned would-be trouble-makers: no violence, this was not a Stanley Cup celebration.

Then the Ghost and I watched as, 18 months later, under a new French-style constitution ratified by another referendum, Parizeau became president and Lucien Bouchard was sworn in as premier ministre and, in his first legislation, introduced restrictions on the wearing of religious garb — crosses, kippahs, hijabs, turbans, though not Habs’ pins — by any public official having in-person dealings with citizens.

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And then soon after came a measure to “francisize” formerly federal crown corporations and agencies, removing their official bilingual status. And another requiring English-language CEGEPs — that is, junior colleges — to teach courses in French and make students demonstrate proficiency in the language of Molière and Mitsou before graduating.

And then a re-jigging of health services to weaken language guarantees in traditionally English-speaking communities. And a doubling of tuition fees for Canadians — formerly “out-of-province” Canadians — attending the new country’s traditionally English-speaking universities (McGill, Concordia and Bishop’s), as well as a requirement that these students, too, reach intermediate proficiency in French before graduating. And “repatriation” of foreign student fees from all universities to the ministry of education (though the English ones generate by far the most such fees).

“Enough, enough,” I cried, dizzied by the blizzard of bills, regulations and order papers. “Where’s the federal government in all this? Where are our constitutional protections as anglophone Quebecers and English-speaking Canadians?”

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Eh, bien,” said the ghost, flicking his ash. “The federal government is gone. Forget the federal government. I’m showing you what would have happened had you lost in 1995 and in this alternative history you did lose. And the people of Quebec, at long last maîtres chez nous, proceeded to take control of their destiny, language and institutions. Ottawa no longer has a say.”

“But-but,” I stammered, brain addled by the marshmallow/egg nog mixture, “we didn’t lose. We won. It was close, yes, just 50.4 to 49.6, but Non won. And there were all those supposedly spoiled ballots, now destroyed, so the margin of victory was probably higher, since they were mainly in Non ridings.”

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He shrugged a gallic shrug.

“And yet,” I continued, “all this legislating you’ve shown me. It has all actually happened, though not as quickly as on the screen, and not by Parizeau or Bouchard or even a separatist premier, but by one who quit the separatists and founded his own party, saying Quebecers were tired of talk about separation.”

“And, and,” I babbled on, “Canada’s constitution still has effect. Or it should. We still have freedom of religion, don’t we? Ottawa still exists. There’s still a federal minister of justice and an attorney-general, aren’t there? There are still courts. The country is still officially bilingual. The prime minister is even a Trudeau.” (The Ghost winced.)

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“So how is it English-speaking Canadians’ rights have been reduced in Quebec and yet Ottawa and the courts have said nothing and done nothing? As if Quebec were in fact its own country, when the reality is it isn’t its own country. The separatists lost in 1995.”

The Ghost smiled, his eyes a-twinkle through blue haze. “Ah, politics,” he said. “Qui perd gagne. Sometimes you win even when you lose.”

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At which my cheeks suddenly went cold and wet and I spluttered. The family dog, back from her walk with my wife and sons, was licking my face lovingly, her tail thumping against the sofa, and I awoke.

“Did we hear you talking in your nap?” they asked. “And what’s that smoky smell?”

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