First Published: The Forge Vol. 5, No. 20, May 23, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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No matter whkh way the percentages are calculated, the May 20 referendum results gave a decisive victory to the “no” camp, which reaped 59.5% of the vote.
Even the PQ’s last-minute hopes of obtaining a moral victory with a majority of francophones votes were dashed when results showed about 54% of these voters had opted for the “no”.
But politicians and commentators across the country were obliged to recognize that far from endorsing the status quo with the vote, Quebec people had expressed their desire for change. The voters were simply unwilling to back the PQ’s sovereignty-association option to obtain that change.
As was to be expected, electoral ridings with a large percentage of non-francophones voters, like D’Arcy McGee in Montreal, went overwhelmingly in favour of a “no” vote (96%). But the trend was generalized. Nine out of the province’s ten regions went to the “no” camp. The only region where the PQ won a decisive victory was in the Lac St. Jean area and Quebec’s North Shore, where its base is particularly strong. The “yes”majority went as high as 62% in Saguenay, for example.
A block of three East-end Montreal working class ridings, with a large majority of francophones and a history of PQ support, also voted “yes”. In all, a meagre 16 out of 110 electoral ridings favoured the “yes”, most by only a slim majority. And only six of the most prestigious PQ Cabinet Ministers, like Premier Levesque, Finance Minister Parizeau, and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Claude Morin were spared defeat in their own ridings.
Despite its attempts to stage the referendum as a non-partisan affair and widen “yes” support beyond its own party lines, the PQ’s 40.5% of the popular vote did not surpass the 41.4% it had won previously in the 1976 provincial election which brought it to power.
A barrage of federal publicity, millions in extra funds, and a coordinated scare campaign on the dire consequences of a “yes” vote – threat of severed oil supplies, job losses, and lost pensions were key elements in the “no” campaign.
But the federal government, particularly Prime Minister Trudeau, also made a pitch to Quebecers’, desire for change. Trudeau went for precisely the audience the PQ was trying to win over: those who were fed up with the status quo but did not necessarily favour sovereignty-association.
He turned the PQ’s arguments around, insisting that only a “no” vote would bring change, while a “yes” would block the process. A string of provincial premiers strengthened his argument, all saying they would never negotiate sovereignty-association with the PQ.
The monopoly capitalist class, with vested interests in Quebec resources and cheap labour, had brought its full forces into play. Meanwhile the PQ was caught in a dilemma: trying to win the referendum with an option that the majority of Quebecers did not support. And despite its manoeuvering and watered-down referendum question, the PQ was forced on the defensive each time the opposition pointed out that sovereignty-association was in fact the “yes” camp’s ultimate goal.
The PQ entered the campaign with handicaps that went with three years in power: local riding associations disorganized, seven by-election losses and an option of sovereignty-association which polls showed was doomed for defeat if presented to the population outright.
The surprise re-election of Pierre Trudeau as federal Prime Minister only a month before the referendum campaign, also messed up the PQ’s plans to use the argument that French power had been swept out of Ottawa.
But armed with a watered-down referendum question and all its troops mobilized the PQ hoped to turn the tide in its favour. Party strategists organized winning performances by the party’s best orators in the National Assembly debates in March, hoping that the high-pressure play to national pride would create a snowball effect for the rest of the campaign.
All of the PQ’s arguments for a “yes” vote the only way to assure a “breakthrough” for change, the “historical process,” the chance to “stand up and be heard” by English Canada – were developed.
Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan proved to be totally ineffectual in countering the PQ’s offensive. While PQ orators appealed to national pride, Ryan harped on technicalities of the referendum question. While the PQ promised fundamental change, Ryan and his troops made sermons on ’the merits of the present-day federal system.
Even after the campaign officially began in April, Ryan was incapable of giving the “no” option a positive ring. And only a slip-up by the PQ in its otherwise flawless campaign allowed the “no” camp to whip up some popular support for its option with the Yvette movement of women for the “no.”
Seeing Ryan faltering, the monopoly bourgeoisie was stirred into action. Big businessmen multiplied their statements about the “economic uncertainty” a “yes” vote would bring.
Federal Cabinet Ministers staged their own “debates” in Parliament, tackling the PQ’s economic arguments one by one to show that Quebec could not survive outside Canada. Provincial premiers paraded into Quebec or held special legislature debates to repeat unanimously that they would not negotiate with Quebec in the event of a “yes” vote.
But it was Prime Minister Trudeau who turned the tide decisively in favour of the “no” camp. He succeeded where Ryan had failed in giving the “no” option a content that could sell.
In three carefully orchestrated appearances in Quebec, Trudeau developed his promise for constitutional change, going so far as to “lay his job on the line” if it wasn’t realized. Of course, the content of this change remained conveniently vague.
Speaking as a Quebecer and the number one politician in Canada, Trudeau cynically played to national pride, saying Quebecers did have a strong voice in Canada and could best meet their aspirations within Confederation. All the while of course, Trudeau has been instrumental in maintaining Quebec’s status quo of inequality over the past twelve years.
Trudeau’s onslaught forced the PQ on the defensive, scrambling to win back some of the soft “yes” supporters who had drifted to the ranks of the undecided. The PQ made a last-ditch effort to seem as reassuring as possible and deradicalize its option, stressing that“everything would continue as before” after the referendum.
Its option of sovereignty-association was pushed further and further aside, until it wasn’t even mentioned in the last weeks of the race. But despite a well-organized campaign, the “yes” camp was unable to overcome its basic dilemna.
The stunning defeat of an option which has been the PQ’s main reason for existence will raise major problems for the party as it tries to reorganize its troops and adjust its strategy for a provincial election within the next year.
As for the federalist forces, they are already preening Ryan and boosting his credit for the “no” victory to prepare him to take on the PQ in the election battle. Trudeau and the federal government are off to a noisy start to organize constitutional talks.
Meanwhile, the Quebec people will be watching attentively to see what will come of all those promises.