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Jacques Parizeau's house of cards.

This is a credible book. It was written by one of our most accomplished political journalists, and certainly our most bicultural one. Chapter by chapter, Chantal Hebert weaves a clear and succinct summary of 17 interviews conducted with the main actors in the 1995 Quebec referendum and some federal and provincial leaders of the time. She asked every one of those political actors the same questions: What would you have done if the Yes had won? What do you think would have happened? As I write this, none of the 17 personalities have complained that they were misquoted. And for most of these interviews, Hebert benefited from Jean Lapierre's extraordinary experience combining politics with on-the-ground journalism.

Both authors insist that they tried not to let their personal opinions influence how they reported these interviews. In my view, they have met their objective. Since my own personal opinions on the issue are well known, what I have done for this review was to check whether or not their description of the facts supported or contradicted my opinions. I believe I can show that it actually strengthened them.

Paradoxically, it is Lucien Bouchard who recently, in a single sentence, summed up what I believe could have happened if the Yes had won. About the time The Morning After was published, Bouchard was interviewed about the unilateral declaration of independence Jacques Parizeau envisaged if the Yes side had prevailed in the 1995 referendum. This, freely translated, was Bouchard's response: "It would have been dramatic, it shouldn't happen that way, because it would be chaos the day after." (1)

It was precisely to avoid such chaos that a few months after the 1995 referendum I accepted Jean Chretien's offer to be his Minister of Canadian Unity. I was convinced that the process put in place by Jacques Parizeau could not have led to independence. It would have led to chaos or at least to months of turmoil, bringing no good to anyone. The shock would have been felt throughout Canada but nowhere more than in Quebec and particularly in Montreal. Contrary to what has often been said about my actions or motives, it was not to protect Canada from Quebec that I pushed hard to clarify the rules of secession. I did it as a Quebecer who did not want his society to be profoundly divided in the aftermath of a future Yes vote, without a legal framework to help overcome its internal divisions.

Reading The Morning After did not shake my conviction, but strengthened it. The book should be recommended to those who keep repeating, ad nauseam, that Canada came within inches of a breakup on the eve of October 30, 1995. We will never know for sure what would have happened if some 50,000 voters more had voted Yes rather than No. But the least that can be said is that, after reading the book, secession is not the most likely scenario that comes to mind. However, secession is the scenario The Morning After lays out in greatest detail, thanks to the interview with Jacques Parizeau, the core of the book.

In his own interview, Jean Chretien declares that he had other cards to play if the Yes had won, but refuses to disclose them to Hebert and Lapierre. Even during the referendum campaign, he kept his intentions hidden from his ministers and closest collaborators, fearing that any mention of defeat could discourage the No activists in the middle of the campaign. So we know now what Premier Parizeau had in mind, but Prime Minister Chretien's intentions at the time remain unknown; what is well known is his firm determination to oppose any secession attempt based on a referendum result that was less than clear.

Jacques Parizeau wanted to rush into secession without waiting. His "nightmare" was that negotiations would bog down; he would not have hesitated to declare independence unilaterally to break the logjam. He believed that the political and economic partnership mentioned in the referendum question had no chance of being accepted by the Canadian side. What he was hoping for was a short, businesslike negotiation, limited to the modalities of separation, to be held between technocrats from Quebec and the rest of Canada. In his interview, he evokes Czechoslovakia's Velvet Divorce: "The Slovaks said that they wanted to leave and the Czechs said good riddance. Within a year they had agreed to a sharing of assets and had gone their separate ways."

Parizeau kept his negotiating team at the ready. They were his trusted experts who would eventually take over from Lucien Bouchard, who in theory was the chief negotiator. Quebec finance department officials already had their plane tickets to the world's major financial capitals. Parizeau had set up a $17 billion contingency fund to soothe the financial markets. He had a list of federalist personalities whom he had identified as prepared to accept the result, which he planned to publish the following day in the Quebec newspapers. Montreal Mayor Pierre Bourque was supposed to issue a similar statement. The National Assembly would have been convened within 48 hours and would have also issued a statement of acceptance of the result. Contacts had been made with members of France's political class to encourage them to support such a statement.

According to Parizeau, the Cree and Inuit, having signed the James Bay Convention, could hardly have upheld their right to remain in the Canadian federation. Farther south, where Quebec's nonsignatory Innu and Mohawks resided, Parizeau was ready to "just let the Canadian government continue to oversee those territories."

The basis of the Parizeau plan was known before The Morning After was published, the most salient exception being the startling new revelation that he had not ruled out an eventual partition of Quebec territory. I have already had the opportunity of explaining elsewhere what was wrong with the whole Parizeau plan. I am convinced that Parizeau's scenario would have collapsed like a house of cards.

Unlike Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of Communism, Quebec and the rest of Canada are well-established democracies. It is hard to imagine that the people of Quebec, having expressed their will in a referendum, would have just stepped aside and let dispassionate negotiators take over the whole thing. Public opinion and interest groups of all kinds would have continued to express themselves in Quebec and the rest of Canada alike. Parizeau would have been unable to confine these voices to a "lobster trap," to quote his own words.

Let's not forget that support for the Yes was very fragile. Having been boosted artificially through the use of a confusing question (according to the polls conducted at the time, half the voters thought that independence was conditional on the successful negotiation of a political partnership), it would likely have melted away as soon as the first difficulties arose in the negotiations. How would Quebecers have reacted to Parizeau's gambling with their savings in the--undoubtedly vain--hope that this would placate the markets? Not to mention that rumours of ballot box shenanigans circulating at the time would have done nothing to calm people down.

Inevitably, legal issues would have been raised. Parizeau would have been forced to raise them himself in order to impose his authority on Quebecers--including the Cree and Inuit. However, he had no authority to take Canada away from those Quebecers who wanted to keep their country. The law would have been on their side. The Parizeau government's secession initiative had already been called into question: Judge Lesage of the Superior Court of Quebec ruled that a secession attempt would be "manifestly illegal" and would pose "a serious threat to the applicant's rights and freedoms as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms." (2)

Regarding international recognition, it is very unlikely that Quebec would have been recognized as an independent state against the will of the Canadian government. There is no precedent for such recognition. President Clinton's briefing notes show how the United States would have reacted: "Since the Canadians have yet to work out their future constitutional arrangements, it is premature to consider the question of recognition of Quebec." (3)

For all those reasons, I am convinced that the Parizeau plan was bound to fail. The interviews in The Morning After, which all point to such failure, only strengthen my conviction.

In the first place, the Yes camp would likely have splintered. Neither Lucien Bouchard nor Mario Dumont intended to let Parizeau push them aside after the referendum. Bouchard was the popular man, the champion of the Yes camp. If he and Dumont had broken with Parizeau, the effects on public opinion regarding Parizeau and his secession project would have been negative.

Second, Parizeau was overly optimistic about an eventual buy-in by federalist Quebecers. The statement by well-known federalists that according to him was to have been published in the media did not speak of independence; it only called for a summit on the challenges Quebec would be facing. The Morning After depicts a Daniel Johnson, a Lucienne Robillard and a Jean Charest with no inclination to buy into independence in the event of a weak Yes victory.

Finally, the Parizeau plan could only have worked if a Canadian negotiation team could have been set up quickly, before a majority of Quebecers could turn against secession. The Morning After shows that quick formation of a team would have been highly unlikely: the federal ministers and provincial premiers Chantal Hebert interviewed all discount the possibility of a political and economic partnership being negotiated at the time. On that issue, Parizeau was right. Even speedy negotiation of a separation agreement was out of the question.

Preston Manning was the only one prepared to negotiate secession on the basis of a weak majority, and he would have imposed very tough conditions. And the other politicians at the federal level and in anglophone provinces who were interviewed for the book would not have accepted Manning as Canada's chief negotiator. The priority for Premiers Roy Romanow of Saskatchewan, Mike Harris of Ontario and Frank McKenna of New Brunswick was to protect their provincial interests. A hasty departure by Quebec, even if it had been possible, was not their first choice; banking on Quebec opinion turning away from secession was their preferred option. As McKenna concluded, "You'd get a certain amount of buyer's remorse [among Quebecers]. A certain amount of people would have said: What have we done? What does this really mean?"

That was also the opinion of Jean Chretien's ministers and close advisers. As Bob Rae said, "The way the referendum was built, no one could assume that the country was finished, that the question did not lend itself to that inevitable conclusion."

In sum, secession in a democracy cannot be done unilaterally, outside the legal framework. It requires negotiation. Many months would pass between the evening of a Yes vote and the conclusion of a separation agreement--dividing a modern state in two is a huge and difficult task. If support for secession is going to be able to resist the difficulties inherent in such negotiations, a clear expression of support is an essential starting point. By banking on confusion rather than clarity, by eschewing the legal framework, Jacques Parizeau's secession project was doomed to fail. Of this I am even more convinced after reading the reference book that The Morning After has already become.


(1) 24/60, RDI, August 22,2014, retrieved from /7145926/?seektime=576.0070000000001

(2) Bertrand v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1995] R.J.Q. 2500, J.E. 95-1737

(3) Canadian Press, "U.S. Wouldn't Have Recognized Que. Independence after '95 Referendum: Documents," CBC, March 14, 2014, retrieved from

Stephane Dion is Member of Parliament for St-Laurent-Cartierville. He was Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs from 1996 to 2003 and Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition from 2006 to 2008.

Chantal Hebert with Jean Lapierre, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014. 320 pp.
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Title Annotation:Chantal Hebert's "The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was"
Author:Dion, Stephane
Publication:Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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