The Quebec Referendum of 1995 was the second of two referendums on sovereignty held in the Province of Quebec in the late twentieth century. The goal of both of these referendums was to ask the citizens of Quebec if–following significant changes to Québécois society and challenges to the recognition of Quebec within Canada’s constitutional order—Quebec should become a distinct and autonomous nation.
Following the Quiet Revolution, the rise of Québécois nationalism, and the 1976 election of the Parti Quebecois, a first referendum was held in 1980 on the matter of Québécois sovereignty. Although the first referendum did not pass in favour of sovereignty, the early 1980s and the exclusion of Quebec from the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982 was a significant moment for Québécois sovereignty. The slight felt by the Parti Quebecois and their supporters at that time led to the Meech Lake Accord—an attempt to recognize the distinct nature of Quebec and to address other relevant concerns. The Accord had been “welcomed in Quebec,” and when it failed to ratified prior to the deadline people in Quebec saw its non-ratification as another rejection of the distinct nature of Quebec within Canada.
Following the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord, Robert Bourassa, then-Premier of Quebec, asserted a referendum would be held on either a new constitution or Quebec’s sovereignty. In response, the federal government under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney worked to put together a new constitutional agreement, the Charlottetown Accord, as a last-ditch effort to win Quebec’s acceptance for a unified national Constitution. The Charlottetown Accord was accepted by the federal government and all ten provinces, but (due to critiques of the Meech Lake Accord as a “backroom deal”), the Accord was put to a public vote via a national referendum. The Charlottetown Accord did not receive national approval by a slim margin, and ultimately failed to be adopted.
Towards a Referendum
After the 1994 provincial election and the return of the Parti Québécois to power, the move towards the referendum began. The original plan was for a vote in Spring 1995, but that was later delayed until October 30, 1995. On June 12, 1995, an agreement was signed by the leaders of the Parti Québécois, the Bloc Québécois, and the Action Démocratique du Québec. The agreement allowed the three parties to collaborate on a formal proposal for a new economic and political partnership with Canada. Thus, resulting in the creation of the historical and ambitious “Sovereignty Bill” otherwise known as “Bill 1”.
The Sovereignty Bill advocated giving the National Assembly the right to declare Quebec an independent country with executive authority to make all laws, collect all taxes, and otherwise govern itself. It also required the Quebec government to make a partnership proposal with the rest of the provinces. The Bill also offered a set of suggestions that a sovereign Quebec could make to Canada in areas including customs, monetary policy, labour mobility, citizenship, and the movement of commodities, people, services, and capital.
The question posed in the referendum would make reference to Bill 1 and to the June 12 agreement, reading: “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 12 June 1995?“
The official referendum campaign took place throughout October 1995. In the early stages of the month-long campaign, the Premier of Quebec at the time, Jacques Parizeau appointed Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois, as chief negotiator, and effectively as de facto leader of the referendum campaign. Throughout the campaign, Bouchard emphasized the ongoing need for the preservation and enhancement of Quebec’s language and culture while also suggesting that the sovereign Quebec would be unencumbered by economic difficulty. In the second week of the campaign, the yes side saw considerable growth in its support, most of which was concentrated in the Francophone majority.
The campaign against separation was principally led by Daniel Johnson Jr., leader of the Quebec Liberal Party and then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The “no” campaign appealed to the historical ties between Quebec and the rest of Canada, focusing on the virtues of national unity and federalism. Initially, the federal government took a passive role in the campaign. However, by the second week, federal assumptions of an easy victory were confounded, the federal government agreed to new concessions for Quebec. In a speech at the height of the campaign, Prime Minister Chrétien promised that if the “no” side won, that the federal government would pass legislation that would confirm Quebec as a distinct society. The “no” campaign emphasized the economic harm and dislocation that separation would cause.
On the day of the Referendum, the results were almost equal with 2,362,648 representing 50.58% of eligible voters voting no and 2,308,360 representing 49.42% of eligible voters voting yes. The referendum was decided in favour of the “no” campaign.
After the referendum, Jacques Parizeau resigned as Premier, replaced by Lucien Bouchard who had previously been the head of the Bloc Québécois and head or the “yes” campaign. In the days following the vote, there were concerns about “spoiled ballots,” namely that almost 2% of the votes—just over 86,000 ballots cast—were rejected, although those concerns were ultimately dismissed following a long legal battle. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien fulfilled his promise to declare Quebec as a distinct society and gave the provinces a greater say in constitutional reforms. In 2000, the federal government would pass the Clarity Act to provide a structured framework for future referenda. To avoid what Chrétien called, “a mandate through the back door,” a successful secession will now require a qualified majority predicated on an unambiguous question agreed upon by the House of Commons.
- Allan Gregg in Conversation with Jean Chrétien, reflecting on the 1995 referendum (21:00-28:00
- Complete coverage of the 1995 referendum by the CBC (video)
- Favourite sketches from the 1995 referendum by the Montreal Gazette’s Aislin (a.k.a. Terry Mosher)
Contributors: Tanner Deamer, Justin Gec, Paulvinder Singh Thind, Tyler Vincent.