1995: The independence we almost had

The 25th anniversary of Quebec’s bitter defeat

The first time I ever heard the words “vote ethnique” was during my high school Monde Contemporain class. My teacher, a not-so-secret diehard Quebec separatist, explained that it was one of the reasons that many voters felt robbed of a “Yes” majority during the 1995 referendum.

It was claimed that the federal government had rushed the process for immigrants to obtain their citizenship right before the vote in hopes of skewing the results — an accusation that has left a lasting bitterness towards foreigners and minorities.

My teacher also brought up the hundreds of thousands of dollars unlawfully spent by the federal government on their conservative campaign, though failed to mention the ballots illegally rejected by the “Yes” camp.

I’ve been looking back on all this political drama, as the last referendum turned a quarter of a century old on Oct. 30. The separatist ideology has since fallen considerably out of popularity, with 82 per cent of Quebecers siding with remaining Canadians in 2016.

Despite the dwindling sentiment of nationalism, independence remains a major talking point in provincial elections, which brings us to wonder what even still drives this conversation 25 years later.

The economic implications of obtaining sovereignty are almost always the first objection to this matter. Despite Quebec representing just under 23 per cent of the country’s population, our share of Canada’s total debt — which sits at around 37 per cent — would be a major obstacle to our success without the federal government’s help. Our debt to capita and to GDP ratios have also been some of the highest in the country at the time of both referendums.

When the 1995 votes were cast, it was also uncertain whether the Clinton administration would’ve even recognized Quebec’s independence and accepted it as a member of the

North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Without a free trade agreement with its neighbours, it would be nearly impossible for Quebec’s economy to survive.

Not to mention the friction this would cause with Indigenous nations, who would have to renegotiate their position in the country, and with ethnic minorities, for whom the rule of the French tongue may pose an even greater challenge.

But the Bloc Québécois and advocates for secession also do make some good points. Independence would allow us to focus our resources on the development of renewable energy sources like hydroelectricity, and to build up our economy in an environmentally-friendly way.

Less reliant on oil and with full control of major ports like Montreal and Quebec City, the new country could make a name for itself on the international stage and form its own economic and political alliances.

The Bloc’s argument for the inclusion of immigrants is also particularly interesting because it asks newcomers to integrate into Quebec culture — by learning French, for instance — so that they can contribute to a general culture, rather than follow the current Canadian model that they claim encourages foreigners to stay within their bubbles. What they call the “children of Bill 101,” or the second and third generation immigrants who were proudly raised as Quebecers, are proof that this is an achievable and desirable objective.

For now, I’m not sure many expect the third and final referendum to be called. Yet, we can still speculate on what could have happened just 25 years ago, and whether there is still hope for Quebec to regain its sovereign ideology.


Feature graphic by Taylor Reddam

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