Monday, October 19, 2015

"The Morning After," and the myth of the independence referendum

"The Morning after," a book written by Canadian journalist Chantal Hébert, is a thought experiment about what would have happened if the Yes had won the sovereignty referendum of Quebec of 1995. Instead, it was the No vote that won (against all predictions in the last days of the campaign), although by an extremely narrow difference. Hebert analyzes the "what if" scenario by reporting the results of her interviews, twenty years after the event, with the main protagonists of that referendum campaign, from the two sides, and from the perspective of Quebec, the Canadian government and other Canadian provinces. The main message of the book is that neither the yes side nor the No side had a clear idea of what would have happened in case of a yes victory. The referendum question was confusing, and it could as well be interpreted as giving a mandate for the negotiation of a new status of Quebec in the federation. But neither the sovereignists nor the federalists in each camp were united about this: some sovereignists were in favour of a new agreement, and others were in favour of plain secession. Analogously, some federalists were in favour of a new agreement in case of a yes victory, and others were in favour of letting Quebec go. It seems that it was not easy to simplify preferences in a Yes-No dichotomy. The book gives a very complete perspective to the atmosphere in those decisive days. It seems that financial concerns were a big issue, because of the potential costs of uncertainty in case of a yes victory. The international scene was also a key dimension: it seems that France and the "Francophonie" were in a position to recognise an independent Quebec, although the USA government was in permanent contact with the Canadian federal authorities and supporting them. The attitude of the other Canadian provinces was also a key component of the overall equation, and their pressure was decisive in the subsequent approval of the Clarity Act, by which the conditions for a new referendum are now more strict: the question must be clear and to trigger negotiations, the Yes majority should also be clear (although what a clear majority means is open to interpretation). After the Clarity Act, the support for independence and for an independence referendum has substantially declined. For example, it is no longer an issue in the election that precisely today takes place in Canada. The behaviour of the other provinces was also important in the last hours of the campaign in 1995, because the federal government organized a pro-Canadian event in Quebec with the attendance of thousands of people from other provinces to show their love for the province. The influence of that event in the final result is still today a matter of controversy.

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