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A Forgotten Anniversary

“Why would you want to write about Quebec Separatism?” someone asked. “Nobody is interested in that anymore.”

It was 20 years ago today that Canada narrowly avoided breaking apart. On October 30, 1995, a referendum to separate Quebec from Canada failed by just 54,288 votes, about 1% of the almost 4.8 million votes cast.

Today most Canadians who lived through that experience only vaguely remember it. And younger Canadians may not even be aware that it happened. In the recent federal election campaign, the issue of Quebec separatism was barely mentioned.

How is this possible? How could we forget an event that almost spelled the end of Canada as we know it?

Less Likely

1995 seems a long time ago, and Quebec independence is less likely now. There are a number of reasons for this.

Continued immigration and falling birth rates among Québécois have meant that the “ethnic” vote (which Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau blamed for the defeat of the referendum) makes up a larger percentage of the voting public in Quebec now. Immigrants from places such as Haiti may speak French, but they have little interest in creating a nation based on Québécois culture.

The Clarity Act passed by the Government of Canada requires that, in order for it to accept separation, “a clear majority of Quebecers would have to vote Yes on a clear referendum question.” The 1995 referendum question was far from clear; in fact, it was deliberately vague and confusing.

Due to the falling birth rate in Quebec, Quebec is a less powerful part of Canada and thus appears less capable of making it on its own.

As the world moves more and more toward a global economy, national political structures seem less important.

Perhaps most significantly, as society moves farther away from the overly optimistic idealism of the Baby Boomer generation, it is harder to generate enthusiasm for utopian dreams. Like other people in the world, many Québécois are more concerned with mundane things such as earning a living—and many of them are doing quite well at it within Canada.

The result is that the Bloc Québécois, the federal party dedicated to separating Quebec from Canada, has shrunk to a shadow of its former power. At one point, the BQ controlled almost all of Quebec’s seats in the Canadian House of Commons. In 2015, even though it enjoyed a mild resurgence, the BQ was only able to win 19.3% of the vote and 10 seats. One factor in this is Canada’s revised election laws that have reduced federal government subsidies to political parties. Even though it was dedicated to breaking up Canada, the BQ’s funding came largely from Canadian taxpayers.

At the provincial level since 1995, the separatist Parti Québécois, has only been able to achieve one short minority government despite the many problems faced by the dominant Liberal Party in Quebec. Polls show that it loses electoral support whenever it pushes more strongly for independence.

Is It Over?

It is easy to understand why the anniversary of the 1995 referendum is receiving so little attention.

Québécois may have little desire to relive painful memories, any more than Vancouver Canucks fans want to relive 2011, when their hockey team came tantalizing and agonizingly close but still failed to win the Stanley Cup.

Other Canadians may also not want to think about how terrifyingly close they came to having their country break apart. As well, after decades of Quebec using the threat of secession to push for economic and social advantages, other Canadians have turned a deaf ear to those threats. They simply don’t want to hear about it anymore.

But is our neglect of the anniversary of the referendum justified? Is Quebec separatism now just a quaint historical curiosity?

It would be a mistake to let this anniversary pass unobserved. There are two reasons for this.

First, it would be a mistake to become complacent on this issue. It is still true that many (likely most) Québécois still think of themselves as Québécois first rather than Canadians. Political winds are inherently fickle, and attitudes can change. History has shown that national borders can change drastically over time. So, however unlikely it seems now, it would be wrong to assume that Quebec could never separate from Canada.

Second, any event that was this momentous deserves serious contemplation. There are many questions that deserve attention. Why did more than 2.3 Canadians vote to leave Canada? How was the campaign waged on both sides? What would have happened if the Separatists had won the vote? What do the events of 1995 teach us about what it takes for any society to function politically, socially, and economically? Those are some of the questions addressed in my novel 1995: Je me souviens. There are many lessons to be learned from this nearly forgotten episode in Canadian history.

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