CBC Digital Archives

Chrétien to separatists: 'We won't give an inch!'

It was a hardscrabble climb to the top for Jean Chrétien. "The little guy from Shawinigan" surprised everyone - except himself - by finding his way to the summit of Canadian politics. From the pool hall political debates of his childhood to the opulent offices of Ottawa, CBC Radio and Television capture the long, colourful career of Canada's 20th prime minister.

The ball is in Ottawa's court. The fate of a country is at stake. The Parti Québécois has announced that the upcoming referendum will be on sovereignty association. And that sets the stage for an independent Quebec retaining only economic ties to Canada. Answering for the federalist forces in this radio clip from Don Harron's Morningside, Justice Minister Jean Chrétien declares: "We won't give an inch!"

Chrétien, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's right-hand man, says now that Quebec Premier René Lévesque's separation blueprint is out in the open, the battle for the hearts and minds of Quebecers can begin. He ridicules the PQ proposal as well-written but "dishonest." He says persuading people to vote "Non" is now his top priority. "It's the one time in my political career where I have a fantastic cause to devote all my time to." 
• Chrétien, along with Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan, spent the next six months giving speech after speech in Quebec, proclaiming the benefits of a united Canada. On May 20, 1980, 59.5 per cent of Quebec voters said "Non" to negotiations for sovereignty association while 40.5 per cent voted "Oui." Voter turnout was 84.3 per cent. The result was seen as a clear victory for Chrétien.

• The referendum asked Quebecers if they would give the province a mandate to negotiate an agreement "to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad -- in other words, sovereignty -- and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; no change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be effected without approval by the people through another referendum."

• In speeches across the province, Chrétien touted the economic benefits of living in a united Canada, including the cheap cost of gasoline. He used the example to portray sovereigntists as ideologists willing to throw those benefits away. They want to separate, he said, "so we can have our bourgeois friend (PQ strategist) Claude Morin as Quebec's ambassador in a big Cadillac with the province's flag on the hood."

• Many Quebec sovereigntists called Chrétien a turncoat who misrepresented and demeaned their dreams of independence. Some attacked him from the editorial pages of newspapers. Others showed up at his speeches to do it in person. In a 1985 interview he recalled a little boy yelling "Traitor!" at him all through his speech. "He was about 90 pounds. I would have killed him if I did not control my blood," Chrétien later said.

• Before they became bitter enemies over Quebec sovereignty, Chrétien and Lévesque had been friendly fellow Liberals. In his memoir, Chrétien said their relationship soured after he realized that Lévesque harboured dreams of separatism even before he resigned from the Quebec Liberal party to openly pursue Quebec independence.

• Near the end of the referendum campaign, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised in an official statement that a "Non" victory would lead to negotiations for a new Canadian federalism. Those negotiations failed to earn the support of the Quebec government, however. The 1982 Constitution Act was passed, after much legwork by Chrétien, with the support of all provinces except Quebec.

• Chrétien was prime minister during the next referendum, in 1995. It followed failed attempts to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold with the Meech Lake Accord (1987) and the Charlottetown Accord (1992). Chrétien was criticized for almost losing the 1995 referendum with a laid-back "Non" campaign. The result of the October 30 vote on whether to change Quebec's relationship with Canada was 50.6 per cent for "Non" and 49.4 per cent for "Oui."

• Requests by the provinces to hold a referendum on passage of the 1982 Constitution Act were flatly rejected by Chrétien. He had seen the 1980 Quebec referendum tear apart families and pit friend against friend, neighbour against neighbour. "One referendum in Quebec is enough for me for a lifetime," he told Roy Romanow, Saskatchewan's attorney general, during constitutional talks.Chretien
Medium: Radio
Program: Don Harron's Morningside
Broadcast Date: Nov. 2, 1979
Guest(s): Jean Chrétien
Interviewer: Don Harron
Duration: 7:04

Last updated: April 11, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

All Clips from this Topic

Related Content

John Diefenbaker: extra clips

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Philosopher and Prime...

He slid down banisters, dated movie stars and wore a red rose in his lapel. Pierre Elliott Tru...

Brian Mulroney: The Negotiator

In 1984, Brian Mulroney led the federal Conservatives to the biggest election victory in Canad...

John Diefenbaker: Dief the Chief

His eyes blazing and his finger stabbing the air, John George Diefenbaker set 1950s Canada ali...

Sir John A. Macdonald: Architect of Modern Ca...

Sir John A. Macdonald has been described as a pragmatic statesman, earning the title of Old Ch...