The 1995 "Sovereignty Association" referendum marked a significant turning point in Canadian history.
There had always been anxiety concerning whether or not Canada would survive.
Upon Confederation in 1867, two overwhelming anxieties predominated: the fear of civil war -- such as that which had just embroiled the United States -- and the fear of the United States itself, and its expressed ideology of manifest destiny. These two anxieties pushed Canadian politics in two directions: the accomodation, management, and containment of regional conflagurations, and a race westward to incorporate British Columbia, Rupert's Land and the Northwest Territories into Confederation.
Once Canada as we know it was territorially secure, economics became the primary source of this anxiety. Reciprocity and its not-so-distant cousin, Free Trade, effectively became political footballs kicked back and forth by the Conservative and Liberal parties, as each agonized over the emerging behemoth to the south.
Canadians across Canada clung to Britain in order to stave off the pressures to become too closely aligned with the United States. Even those (notably Quebecois) politicians who, like Wilfred Laurier and Henri Bourassa, sought to eke out and preserve as much independence as possible for Canada embraced Britain wholeheartedly, and considered themselves British subjects.
While occasional internal conflagurations -- such as the Riel rebellion, naval controversy, and conscription crisis (one and two) often threatened to grow into broader threats to national unity, an overwhelming focus on external threats to Canadian unity is hard to overlook.
These conflicts were not only partisan in nature, but also pan-partisan. Factions led by Walter Gordon (nationalist) and Mitchell Sharp (realist) would face off over economic nationalism within the Liberal party (with future Prime Minister Jean Chretien coming to favour the Sharp camp). David Orchard would lead a small but determined rebellion within the Mulroney-era Progressive Conservative party over both the Canada-US Free Trade agreement and the broader North American Free Trade Agreement.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, something was bubbling. It had exploded twice before, with terroristic fury -- during the 1970 October crisis -- and impotence -- during the 1980 Quebec sovereignty referendum when the federalist "non" side defeated the sovereigntist "oui" side with nearly 60% of the vote.
Pierre Trudeau went so far as to declare Quebec separatism officially "dead". And while Brian Mulroney -- likely as a virtue of his relationship with future Bloc Quebecois and Parti Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard -- surely percieved enough of a threat from Quebec separatism to attempt his Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional efforts, one could almost forgive Trudeau for believing separatism in Quebec decisively defeated.
One must say "almost" because in order to hold this belief, Trudeau would have had to overlook the 1981 reelection of the Rene Levesque PQ with an additional nine seats in the National Assembly and an additional 8% of the popular vote.
In 1985, the PQ would be defeated by the Robert Bourassa-led Liberal party. Daniel Johnson Jr would take over from the retiring Bourassa in 1994 and would lead his party to defeat less than a year later, when Jacques Parizeau led the PQ back into power, and eventually within half a percentile of "sovereignty association".
Doubtlessly, there were numerous historical grievances that led to this stunning reversal of the sovereingtist movement's fortunes -- the PQ had elected only 29 members in the 1989 election, but returned with 77 in 1994. The largest of which was almost certainly the collapse of the Meech Lake Accord.
Quebec's disillusionment over the rejection of Meech Lake even resulted in a wholesale rejection of the Charlottetown Accord in Quebec, where 56.7% voted against it in the 1992 referendum on the matter -- a rejection second only to the 60% who voted "no" in Alberta.
Beyond a shadow of doubt, the October 30, 1995 Referendum is the fulcrum of Canadian history -- the definitive sign that the greatest threat to Canada's survival will emerge not from outside the country, but from within.
When a country so narrowly avoids being torn apart from within, it leads people to question what could be so fundamentally wrong at the very foundations of that country that its own citizens would so nearly destroy it.
In the case of Canada, the conventional explanation is basically that of a French Canadian -- more specifically, Quebecois -- nationalism that feels so thwarted that it must collapse the country in order to avenge a centuries-passed conquest.
But upon watching the CBC's referendum-night panel one may wonder if perhaps Stephen Harper's explanation may be the most cogent:
"What has to happen, what people have to do tomorrow is -- and I think a lot of people will want to do it in Quebec and elsewhere -- is pressure their governments to govern and get on with addressing their practical, economic, fiscal and social concerns.As one examines Canadian history, it becomes apparent that Canada is a country that was built upon "grand visions".
Tonight there's been all this attention to the federal government -- what's the federal government going to do? But one of the big questions is: what is the Quebec government going to do? It has used the last two years to prepare for this vote.
Now, is it going to get on with governing itself and improving the lives of the province of Quebec?
There is a tremendous healing that has to be done. But frankly there's a lot of people who have to climb down off their grand visions and start addressing some real concerns because I think people are more sick of that than anything."
The founder of the country, sir John A MacDonald, had a grand vision of a country stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. John Diefenbaker had a grand vision of a more equal federation. Lester Pearson imagined Canada leading on the international stage. Pierre Trudeau had a grand (if vague) vision of a "just society".
Perhaps more than anything else, however, the 1995 referendum result was born out of three visions: Trudeau's vision of a repatriated Constitution (with, conveniently, his own signature adorning it), Mulroney's failed vision of himself as the saviour of Canada via Constitutional reform and the combined visions of Rene Levesque, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard of a sovereign Quebec -- one that so nearly came to pass.
Of course, one cannot discount the roll of history in the matter either: the resurgence of Quebecois nationalism and the construction of a sovereigntist movement intersected dramatically with the de-colonization of Africa and the various parts of Asia that had had been incorporated within the British, French and other European empires. The ideas of national self-determination that underscored de-colonization resonated dramatically within Quebecois culture.
The post-1990 strengthening of the Quebecois sovereigntist movement also intersected dramatically with the end of the cold war. As Adam Curtis notes in The Power of Nightmares, the end of the Cold War outdated traditional ideologies, leaving many people in search of alternatives.
In 1981, the drastic post-referendum strengthening of the Parti Quebecois was aided in part by the utter collapse of the Union Nationale, a party that under long-time leader Maurice Duplessis had justified its often-authoritarian streak under the guise of fighting communism.
And while the Berlin wall would not fall for another eight years, many around the world were already smelling the stench of death on the Soviet regime providing the backbone for Eastern European communism.
The strong nationalist elements of the Union Nationale would also be set free by the impending end of the Cold War, and as the nationalists within the Union Nationale felt less threatened by communism, they turned their attentions to Daniel Johnson Sr's call for "Equalite ou Independance", to the direct benefit of the Parti Quebecois.
In time, Separatism became an ideology that appealed to many of those witnessing the end of the threat Maurice Duplessis had once used to maintain control over the province. What many Quebeckers viewed as a rebuked attempt to attain equality turned them instead to seek independance.
It became a new "grand vision" to replace the old vision that had been pushed into obselescence. For those in search of such a vision -- those dissatisfied with the emerging model of the politician as a manager of public affairs -- it clearly became rather attractive, at least in the short term.
The memory of how close Canada came to being torn apart on October 30, 1995 will remain with Canadians for a long time. So long as their remains a Bloc Quebecois or Parti Quebecois to pursue the separatist cause -- whether under the guise of "sovereignty association" or more honest terms -- the fear that we could lose our country will always remain.
It may not be enough for federal politicians to simply tend to the affairs of the country and allow the matter of national unity to tend to itself. But Stephen Harper was right to emphasize the risk of focusing too much on grand visions, and too little on the business of running the country.
A vision of a united Canada will always remain necessary to stave off the threat of Quebecois separatism. But we must always remember there are risks that come with trying to implement such a grand vision.
In 1995, we learned that the hard way.