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'I'm just a girl who must say No'

Do you want "a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations"? That was the heart of the question placed before the people of Quebec in the May 20, 1980 referendum. René Lévesque's Parti Québécois was asking Quebecers for a mandate to negotiate "sovereignty-association", an idea that inflamed federalists and separatists alike. CBC Archives looks back at the vote that divided a province and changed a nation.

Talk about an idea that backfired. In a speech to Parti Québécois supporters, feminist minister Lise Payette offhandedly calls female No side supporters "Yvettes" (after a submissive Quebec elementary schoolbook character). But she inadvertently mobilizes an army of opposition. Adopting the moniker as a badge of honour, 14,000 Yvettes take over the Montreal Forum to hold a massive No side rally. Payette is apologetic, but as we see in this clip, politics hath no fury like women scorned. 
• Lise Payette was born in Montreal in 1931. She began a career in broadcasting with Radio-Canada, hosting a feminist morning radio program called Place aux Femmes and an evening talk show called Appelez-moi Lise. She joined the Parti Québécois and was elected in 1976, becoming René Lévesque's minister of consumer affairs, co-operatives and financial institutions.

• On March 9, 1980, at a Montreal PQ meeting, Payette made a speech intended to urge women to become active in pro-sovereignty politics. She read the following excerpt from a Quebec primary school reader:
"Guy is active in sports: swimming, gymnastics, tennis, boxing, diving. His ambition is to be a champion and win lots of trophies. Yvette, his little sister, is happy and nice. She always finds a way to make her parents happy."

"Yesterday, at mealtime, she cut the bread, poured water on the tea in the teapot, she carried in the sugar bowl, the butter dish, the pitcher of milk. She also helped to serve the roast chicken. After breakfast, she happily dried the dishes and swept the rug. Yvette is a very helpful little girl."
• Payette went on to say that she herself was an Yvette, as was every woman there, because of their patriarchal upbringings.

• It was then that the speech went off the rails. Payette said that Liberal leader Claude Ryan was the sort of man she hated because he wanted a Quebec full of Yvettes. In a move she later called her "blunder of blunders", she added, "Moreover, he's married to an Yvette."

(Source: Graham Fraser, PQ: René Lévesque & the Parti Québécois in Power.)

• Payette's attack on Madeleine Ryan brought stinging rebukes in the newspapers, and three weeks later a group of Quebec City women organized the "Brunch des Yvettes" at the Château Frontenac. Liberal organizers, including Madeleine Ryan, seized the momentum and organized an enormous Yvettes rally at the Montreal Forum. It galvanized both federal feminists and supporters of traditional values who felt that homemaking had been slighted. The gaffe changed the momentum of the campaign, and helped end Payette's political career.
Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: April 7, 1980
Guest(s): Lise Payette, Madeleine Ryan
Reporter: Don MacPherson
Duration: 2:05

Last updated: March 25, 2014

Page consulted on March 25, 2014

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