The 1995 referendum differed from the first referendum on Quebec's sovereignty in that the 1980 question proposed to negotiate "sovereignty-association" with the Canadian government, while the 1995 question proposed "sovereignty", along with an optional partnership offer to the rest of Canada.
As a matter of law, it was not illegal for the federal government of Canada to unilaterally seek to amend the Canadian Constitution, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, in what became known as the Patriation Reference, that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was required to consult the provinces and obtain their agreed consent.
The provincial premiers stood united against the constitutional amendments, until, after a long battle between the provinces and Ottawa, an agreement was reached with nine of the ten premiers. However, René Lévesque, the Premier of Quebec, had not been consulted by the other provinces on the terms of the agreement. Thus, he refused to sign the accord on the Constitution Act of 1982. Despite his refusal, the amendments to Canada's constitution were ratified, and would still apply to his province.
Lévesque claimed that the "Canadian way" of which the other premiers spoke in reaching the agreement, was to "to abandon Québec at the moment of crisis." He prophetically warned that his betrayal would have dire consequences for Canada.
Efforts were made following the Constitution Act of 1982 to make amendments to the Canadian Constitution in order to persuade Quebec to endorse it. These attempted amendments were known as the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Both these attempts to amend the constitution failed, which further fuelled growing support for the Quebec sovereignty movement.
In 1990, Lucien Bouchard, a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government, led a coalition of Liberal and Progressive Conservative members of parliament from Quebec to form a new federal party devoted to Quebec's independence, known as the Bloc Québécois.
In Quebec, the 1994 provincial election brought the separatist Parti Québécois back to power, led by Jacques Parizeau. He promised voters to hold a referendum on sovereignty during his term in office as premier.
In French, the question on the ballot asked:
"Acceptez-vous que le Québec devienne souverain, après avoir offert formellement au Canada un nouveau partenariat économique et politique, dans le cadre du projet de loi sur l'avenir du Québec et de l'entente signée le 12 juin 1995?"
In English, the question on the ballot asked:
"Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
Ballots in aboriginal communities in which native languages were commonly used were trilingual.
The text of what was called the "Tripartite Agreement on Sovereignty", or the "agreement signed on June 12, 1995" mentioned in the referendum question, was sent to every household in Quebec weeks before the vote. It was signed by Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, and Mario Dumont, leader of the provincial Action démocratique du Québec or ADQ.
Many on the "No" side argued that the referendum question was unclear.
Key federalists included:
Key sovereigntists included:
Seeing that the "Yes" side was making little progress, the more popular Lucien Bouchard rose to a more prominent role among sovereignists, appointed by Parizeau as "chief negotiator" in "partnership" talks following a "Yes" vote. In December of 1994, Lucien Bouchard had come close to death from necrotizing fasciitis, or "flesh-eating disease". To stop the spread of the disease, and to save his life, doctors had to remove his left leg. His recovery, and subsequent public appearances on crutches, brought a massive wave of sentiment for his terrifying ordeal. Some observers state that it had a profoundly positive effect on the campaign for the separatist cause, and that his continued commitment to Quebec's independence after his close-to-death experience was something sovereignsts were able to rally around.
Under Bouchard, the numbers continued to change and new polls eventually showed a majority of Quebecers intending to vote "Yes". Even Bouchard's stumbles had little effect. Remarks three weeks before the vote that Quebecers were the "white race" with the lowest rate of reproduction did not stall the momentum.
Days before the referendum it looked as though the sovereignists would win. Polls held two weeks before the vote showed the "Yes" side with as much as a 5% lead over the "No" side. A federalist rally of about ten thousand people was held at the Verdun Auditorium on Tuesday, October 24, in which Jean Chrétien promised certain quasi-constitutional reforms to give Quebec more power. On the next night, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gave a televised address to the nation in English and French, while, Lucien Bouchard gave a rebuttal. After these two events, several polls indicated that the "No" side had a slight lead over the "Yes" side, but well within the margin of error (between 0 and 2%).
A massive rally was held on Friday, October 27 (three days before the vote), in downtown Montreal, known as the "Unity Rally", where an estimated 100,000 Canadians from outside Quebec came to celebrate a united Canada, and plead with Quebecers to vote "No" in the referendum. Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Brian Tobin played a crucial role in organizing and promoting the event. The Canadian Unity Flag was first seen at the Unity Rally. The rally attracted considerable controversy because corporate sponsors made what, in the view of the Director General of Elections in Quebec, were illegal contributions to the No campaign, for example offering free or heavily discounted transportation to Montreal for demonstrators. In the end, these provisions of Quebec's electoral laws could not be enforced because of the sponsors' location outside Quebec. (See below.)
Many Canadian politicians from outside Quebec, who had previously been asked not to get involved by the "No" committee, participated in the event, notably Ontario Premier Mike Harris, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, Nova Scotia Premier John Savage, and Prince Edward Island Premier Catherine Callbeck. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Progressive Conservative Party leader Jean Charest and Quebec Liberal Party leader Daniel Johnson spoke to the crowd for the occasion.
A poll released just weeks before that vote showed more than 28% of undecided voters admitted they believed a "Yes" vote would simply mean Quebec would negotiate a better deal within confederation, meaning that they would continue to use Canadian passports and elect members of parliament in the Canadian House of Commons.
In a speech he had prepared in the event of a "Yes" victory, he said a sovereign Quebec's first move would be to "extend a hand to its Canadian neighbor" in partnership. Parizeau said that he would then expect to negotiate with the federal government after a "Yes" vote. That negotiation failing, he would declare an independent Quebec.
On October 27, Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard's office sent a press release to all military bases in Quebec, calling for creation of a Quebec military and the beginning of a new defence staff in the event of Quebec's independence. Bouchard tried to entice soldiers to defect to a new Quebec army after a "Yes" vote. Bouchard declared that Quebec would take possession of Canadian air force jet fighters based in the province.
When asked about the possibility of Canada negotiating an economic partnership with an independent Quebec, Reform Party Intergovernmental Affairs Critic Stephen Harper told reporters "There is zero support outside of Quebec for this kind of thinking," and "The sooner that Quebeckers know this, the better".
Minister of National Defence David Collenette made preparations to increase security at some federal institutions. He also ordered the military's CF-18 aircraft out of Quebec, to prevent them from being used as pawns in any negotiating process.
Certain Anglophone groups and federalist-aligned town councils expressed support for a partition of Quebec, though this option was seen as a last resort in many circles and thus did not feature centrally in the debate preceding the referendum.
In preparation for a "Yes" victory, aboriginal peoples in Quebec strongly affirmed their own right to self determination. First Nations Chiefs all articulated that forcing them to join an independent Quebec would violate international law. In the final week of the referendum campaign, they would insist on being full participants in any new constitutional negotiations resulting from the referendum. They would vote overwhelmingly against Quebec independence on the eve of the referendum.
The James Bay Cree of Northern Quebec were particularly vocal in their resistance to the idea of being included in an independent Quebec. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come issued a legal paper titled Sovereign Injustice that sought to affirm the Cree right to self-determination in keeping their territories in Canada.
On October 24, 1995 they organized their own referendum asking the question: "Do you consent, as a people, that the Government of Quebec separate the James Bay Crees and Cree traditional territory from Canada in the event of a Yes vote in the Quebec referendum?" 96.3% of the 77% of Crees who cast ballots voted to stay in Canada. The Inuit of Nunavik held a similar local vote asking "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign?", with 96% voting No. First Nations communities were an important contribution to the tense debate on a hypothetical partition of Quebec.
Addressing a packed room of "Yes" supporters, live on television, a bitter and frustrated Jacques Parizeau blamed the result on "money and the ethnic vote," effectively ending his political career.
|No: 2,362,648 (50.58%)||Yes: 2,308,360 (49.42%)|
|Total votes||% of votes|
Controversy subsequently arose over whether the scrutineers of the Chomedey, Marguerite-Bourgeois and Laurier-Dorion ridings had intentionally discarded numerous "No" ballots without valid reasons. In these ridings the "No" vote was dominant, and the proportion of rejected ballots was outstanding at 12%, 5.5% and 3.6%. In the riding of Chomedey, an average of 1 of every 9 ballots were rejected.
Adding to the growing controversy, a study released months after the referendum by respected McGill University sociologist Maurice Pinard, statistician Janusz Kaczorowski and lawyer Andrew Orkin, concluded that ridings with a greater amount of "No" votes had a higher percentage of rejected ballots.
A few months after the referendum, the Directeur général des élections du Québec (DGEQ), Pierre F. Cote, launched an inquiry to shed some light on these alleged irregularities. Under the supervision of Alan B. Gold, Chief Justice of the Quebec Superior Court, all ballots of the three ridings plus a sample of ballots from 34 other ridings were examined.
The report of the DGEQ concluded that some ballots had indeed been rejected without valid reasons. The majority of the rejected ballots were "No" votes, in proportion to the majority of the valid votes which were also "No" votes in these ridings. This, coupled with the correlation between the "No" vote and the rate of rejection, gave the disproportionately high number of rejected "No" votes. The report concluded that on the whole, the irregularities were isolated. Two scrutineers were sued by the DGEQ, but in 1996 were found not guilty by the Quebec Court. It found that the scrutineers had committed no criminal acts, and the rejected ballots were not rejected in a fraudulent or irregular manner by the scrutineers. The evidence brought in front of the court did not sufficiently address the issue to allow the conclusion that there had been a systematic plot to steal ballots. The judgement was upheld by the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal.
A Quebec Court judge acquitted a deputy returning officer of illegally rejecting 53% of the ballots cast at his Chomedey polling district.
Among the information made publicly available by the DGEQ were the number of rejected ballots during elections and referendums in Quebec since 1970. The following table presents the available data:
|Vote Year||Rejected ballots||Party nominating the scrutineers|
|2003 General Elections||1.25%||Parti Québécois|
|1998 General Elections||1.13%||Parti Québécois|
|1995 Referendum||1.82%||Parti Québécois|
|1994 General Elections||1.96%||Liberal Party of Quebec|
|1992 Referendum||2.18%||Liberal Party of Quebec|
|1989 General Elections||2.63%||Liberal Party of Quebec|
|1985 General Elections||1.52%||Parti Québécois|
|1981 General Elections||1.06%||Parti Québécois|
|1980 Referendum||1.74%||Parti Québécois|
|1976 General Elections||2.05%||Liberal Party of Quebec|
|1973 General Elections||1.81%||Liberal Party of Quebec|
|1970 General Elections||1.95%||Union nationale|
Following the release of the DGEQ's report, outraged supporters of the "No" campaign called it biased, especially in light of Pierre F. Cote claims that the alleged illegal spending in organizing the "Unity Rally" was more of a threat to the democratic process than what he saw as "31 people wrongly rejecting ballots". An editorial published in the Montreal Gazette in May of 2007, regarding the illegal spending, pointed out "there is no proof the money changed even one vote. Meanwhile, 86,000 votes were disqualified, many of them because Yes side scrutineers challenged the validity of ballots for any reason, or none."
In July 1996, the Montreal Gazette made a request to obtain access to the thousands of rejected ballots, but was denied by Pierre F. Cote.
In 2000, Alliance Quebec's lawyer Michael Bergman sued the DGEQ for not allowing the lobby group to have access to all ballots. The lobby group claimed to be acting out of a conviction that the "No" ballots were rejected as part of a systematic plot by the PQ government to steal the referendum of 1995. The judge ruled that only a now-inactive body can allow examination of these ballots.
In May 2005, former PQ cabinet minister Richard Le Hir, who has since denounced the Quebec sovereignty movement, claimed that the PQ government actively tried to sway the vote by sending "scrutineer shock troops" drawn from pro-sovereignty labour unions into polling stations in areas with large concentrations of Anglophone and allophone voters. These scrutineers were to obstruct and reject valid "No" votes in order to "neutralize the adversary". Le Hir claimed that the strategy resulted from a belief in the PQ that the citizenships of recent immigrants had been "fast-tracked" in order to increase the "No" vote. PQ officials of the time denied that there was any such plan and stated that Le Hir's allegations were untrue. This was followed by a PQ ad hominem attack in the media, to discredit Le Hir's credibility.
In response to an inquiry into illegal spending on behalf of the "No" side by retired Quebec Court Judge Bernard Grenier, an editorial in the Montreal Gazette called for a full inquiry into the controversy over the rejected ballots.
Campaign spending by any person or group other than the official committees was to be illegal after that date. Violation of this law could have resulted in fines of up to $30,000 or imprisonment. The Referendum Act had been enacted by the Parliament of Quebec prior to the referendum of 1980.
Following a ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada issued on October 17, 1997 (see Libman vs. Quebec-Attorney General), some sections of Quebec's referendum law restricting third-party expenditures were judged unconstitutional, as they were too restrictive to be justified as a reasonable limit "prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society", as per section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Option Canada was created by the Canadian Unity Council, a group devoted to “strengthening Canada”. The council's head was Jocelyn Beaudoin, later appointed by Jean Charest's provincial government as Quebec's representative in Toronto. Alfred Pilon, Charest's former chief of staff, and Claude Dauphin, an aide to then federal finance minister Paul Martin, were key players in Option Canada.
Option Canada received $1.6 million in funding from the Canadian Heritage Department in 1994, $3.35 million in 1995 and $1.1 million in 1996. The Montreal Gazette reported in March 1997 that the group also had undisclosed funds from undeclared sources.
A Committee to Register Voters Outside Quebec was created to help citizens who had left Quebec in the two years before the 1995 vote register on the electoral list. Since 1989, a clause of the Quebec electoral laws allowed for ex-residents of Quebec to signal their intention of returning to Quebec and to vote by mail. The Committee, which operated during the referendum campaign, handed out pamphlets including a form to be added to the list of voters. The pamphlet gave out a toll-free number as contact information, which was the same number as the one used by the Canadian Unity Council.
After the referendum, the Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec, Pierre F. Côté, filed 20 criminal charges of illegal expenditures by Option Canada and others on behalf of the "No" side, which were dropped after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that parts of the referendum law were too restrictive on third-party spending.
Aurèle Gervais, communications director for the Liberal Party of Canada, as well as the students' association at Ottawa's Algonquin College, were charged after the referendum for illegally hiring buses to bring supporters to Montreal for the rally, part of a larger accusation of illegal spending on the behalf of the "No" side by supporters of Quebec sovereignty. Environment Minister Sergio Marchi told reporters "Mr. Gervais, on behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada, should wear [the charges against him] like a badge of honor," and "I think it's a crock and they should stop nickelling and diming Canadians' sense of patriotism to death.
Robin Philpot, co-author of the book "Les secrets d'Option Canada", claimed former federal minister Brian Tobin, chief organizer for the rally, told him that various Canadian corporations had helped to fund the initiative. A few days before the rally Quebec chief electoral officer Pierre F. Cote issued a warning to six different Canadian transport companies, including Air Canada, Canadian Airlines and Via Rail, that they would face up to a ten thousand dollar fine for any money illegally spent transporting people to Montreal. They were issued these warnings because two days prior to the rally Canadian Airlines had announced its "Unity fare: up to 90% discounts for people who want to purchase tickets from anywhere in Canada." Two years later, the Quebec Superior Court dismissed the charges stating that the infractions took place outside of Quebec, and did not break any laws under the Quebec Electoral Act.
It is still unclear how much money was spent on organizing the rally, or where the money came from. It is also unclear how the rally may have affected the outcome of the referendum. The No side felt that the rally gave them added momentum going into the polls. The Yes campaign however, thought the rally was a desperate attempt that "seemed to have carried the referendum vote to a narrow victory for Canada.
Regardless, this spending was not authorized nor entered in the expenditure report of the "No" Committee. Supporters of Quebec sovereignty allege this to be fraud.
He determined that C$539,000 was illegally spent by the "No" side during the referendum, although drew no conclusions over the "Unity Rally" specifically. Grenier said there was no foregone evidence the rally was part of a greater plan to sabotage the sovereigntist movement.
Previous to Grenier's report, Robin Philpot and Normand Lester, authors of "Les secrets d'Option Canada", claimed that up to C$5 million was illegally spent over the course of the campaign on behalf of the "No" side, significantly more than Grenier's actual findings.
Lester and Philpot claimed that, while significantly less money had been spent than what they had previously alleged, Grenier's findings were still "a severe indictment of federalist dishonesty and subversion of democracy". Lester used Grenier's findings to encourage a complete federal investigation into the matter, especially into funding for the "Unity Rally".
Grenier said no criminal charges would follow the results of his findings. Grenier told reporters "Criminal charges are out of the question," and "It's only an opinion. It's not a judgment of guilt or civil liability."
Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who was then vice-president of the "No" committee, was cleared of any wrongdoing by Grenier. Political analysts had predicted Charest's credibility would be damaged if Grenier implicated him in the report.
Grenier's report says some witnesses he heard wanted to testify about illegal spending by the "Yes" side, specifically about a group founded in the spring of 1995, the "Conseil de la souverainete du Québec". Grenier concluded his mandate did not extend to probing that body's finances.
The Montreal Gazette, in an article published on May 30, 2007, claimed that the government of Quebec may have also been illegally spending money, possibly more than Option Canada spent, into supporting the "Yes" side through government departments, a series of studies, and in various other ways.
Grenier urged Quebecers in his report to move on, saying "I think it's now time to move forward, to move ahead."
Following the release of Grenier's report, the Bloc Québécois called for a federal inquiry into the matter. Prime Minister Stephen Harper dismissed the issue.
When confronted about the issue by a Bloc Québécois MP who suggested shortcuts were being taken to hurry citizenship applications for immigrants who would most likely vote "No", Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Sergio Marchi responded:
What is being done with respect to citizenship processing in the province of Quebec leading up to the referendum is nothing different from any lead up to any provincial campaign. My department has done likewise with the provinces of Manitoba, New Brunswick and Ontario. If we compare the number of citizenship processings with the year of the Ontario election, it is up some 45 per cent.
When further pressed about the issue, he pointed out that the Bloc had "criticized [Ottawa] in the past for moving too slowly on the applications. Now they are saying we are moving too fast. Which one is it?
Statistics compiled by Citizenship and Immigration Canada show that some 43,855 new Quebecers obtained their Canadian citizenship in the year of 1995. About one quarter of immigrants (11,429) were granted their citizenship during the month of October. In that month, it was the first time that Quebec residents received more citizenship certificates than Ontario residents, which has not occurred again since. The data also shows an increase in certificate attributions by 87% between 1993 and 1995. The year of 1996 saw a drop of 39%.
The same year, PQ activists from the Eastern Townships region also brought a case of referendum fraud before the DGEQ. As a result of the inquiry, 32 international students studying at Bishop's University in Lennoxville were fined after being found guilty of voting illegally in 1995. No mention was made of scrutiny of electoral lists from regions or demographics favouring sovereignty or independence of Quebec.
In June 2005, the Parti Québécois added to its party platform a commitment to reform electoral laws so that it becomes necessary to present an electoral card and photo identification in order to vote, as well as to invite UN officials to supervise any future referendums in the province.
The party platform adopted during the 2005 Parti Québécois National Council stipulated that a PQ government would hold a referendum as soon as possible during the next mandate. The third-place showing of the PQ in the general election held on March 26, 2007, cast doubt on the political viability of this policy. The PLQ and ADQ now both oppose holding a third referendum.