Why did it occupy such a central place in both of the leaders' debates this week? The federal government spends about $200 billion a year of taxpayers' money, why make such a big deal about an obscure $5-million federal program that ended ten years ago?
The answer to those questions can be found in the murky world of separatist/federalist politics, a world that is sustained, at least in part, by the power of myth and the maintenance of long-standing grievances. Chief among these, for the separatist side, is the conviction that the result of the 1995 referendum was not legitimate, that the "No" side's victory was "stolen". This idea was first articulated by Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau on referendum night when he famously pointed the finger at the two most likely culprits, "money and the ethnic vote".
Separatists don't talk that way about "ethnics" anymore. They are too busy cultivating their votes. Which leaves money as the principle reason why the separatist dream was defeated in October 1995 by 54,288 votes. Had the federalist forces not secretly and illegally injected millions of dollars in support of their side, had tens of thousands of Canadians not received cash or subsidies to attend the giant "unity rally" in Montreal in the days before the referendum, the outcome may well have been different and the people of Quebec would already be living the sovereigntist dream. Or so the story goes.
There is no question that spending laws for the referendum campaign were strict, and strictly enforced. Neither side was allowed to spend more than $5 million over the course of the campaign, and officially, neither side did. Money could only be channelled through two official umbrella campaign committees. But there was many millions of unofficial dollars being dispensed by governments, companies and groups on both sides. After all, the first priority of the Parti Québécois government in Quebec City was to promote sovereignty, and it did so at every opportunity, spending tens of millions of dollars on sponsorships, advertising and the various other tools of persuasion that all governments have at their disposal. Plastering the Quebec flag all over the province was not a violation of any laws, but it was unquestionably an activity that was helpful to the "Yes" campaign.
On the other side was a slow-footed, ineffectual government in Ottawa that awoke very late to the possibility that the "Yes" side might win. When it did, it poured millions of dollars into Quebec in the weeks before the vote in an effort to sell Canada to Quebecers. And because provincial spending laws did not apply to the federal government, they were not in violation of any laws. But that did not prevent many sovereigntists from believing this was tainted money that violated the spirit, if not the laws, governing referendum spending.
But if Ottawa didn't break the rules, others on the "No" side surely did. At least, that was the conclusion reached by Pierre Cote, Quebec's chief electoral officer, who declared that "the unity rally undermined democracy in Quebec as a whole during the referendum.'' At the same time, Cote, in a ruling that outraged federalists, determined that the integrity of democracy "was not and was never threatened" by the fact that thousands of "No" votes were never counted by scrutineers appointed by the PQ.
Police ultimately charged 18 individuals, groups and companies, inside and outside Quebec, for helping to organize or pay for, buses and planes that carried thousands to the Montreal rally. The most notable was Aurele Gervais, communications director for the Liberal Party of Canada, who faced two charges for his role in taking No backers to Montreal. But the federal government was unrepentant. Liberal Environment Minister Sergio Marchi responded that "Mr. Gervais should wear that like a badge of honour If we had to do it all over again, there's only one mistake we made and that's not enough buses.''
And then there was Option Canada. It was established eight weeks before the referendum by the Canadian Unity Council, a non-profit group founded in 1964 that receives much of its funding from Ottawa. It boasts a membership that is a who's who of business and political leaders from all three national parties.
The stated mission of the CUC "is to inform and to engage all Canadians in building and strengthening Canada", but as a tax-exempt non-partisan organization, it was not allowed to engage in overt political activities. That is presumably why Option Canada was established as its "political arm". It was a response, or so the federalists claimed, to a group called Le Conseil de la Souveraineté du Québec that had received millions of dollars from the Quebec government to promote sovereignty.
Option Canada quickly received $4.8 million from Heritage Canada. What it did with that money has been the subject of suspicion among separatists ever since. So much so, that a book published this week that claims to finally reveal how the money was distributed appears to have captured the imagination of the province; or at least that part of it that will not rest until it has proven that the referendum was stolen from them by dirty money from Ottawa.
The RCMP has now been called in to explore the money trail left by Option Canada. In some ways, the outcome of the investigation is irrelevant. Separatists will continue to insist they were robbed, even if no irregularities are found. And if it is determined that rules were indeed broken, there will be little outrage amongst federalists in Quebec or elsewhere. Given the temper of the times, and what was at stake, how many would have raised serious objections to the federal government funnelling $5 million to Option Canada, especially since many on the "No" side were convinced the deck had been stacked against them by the PQ government in Quebec City? Most would have echoed the statement made by Heritage Minister Sheila Copps in 1997 that "if I am accused of spending money to save my country, then I plead guilty."
So what are we to make of the Option Canada "scandal"? In this election campaign, the Conservatives, the NDP, and much of the English media is portraying this story as another in the long litany of Liberal scandals because a supporter of Paul Martin was at the head of Option Canada. But they are missing the point, and not simply because Conservatives were also heavily involved in the organization.
It is significant that Gilles Duceppe is framing the story for Quebec quite differently than it is being framed in English Canada. In the French and English language debates, he repeatedly referred to this as a "federal scandal", rather than a Liberal one. Duceppe doesn't need a scandal involving Option Canada in order to win seats in this election. He needs it to win the next referendum. Option Canada goes right to the very heart of the separatist claim that their dream was stolen from them in 1995, not just by Liberals, but by federalists of all stripes. And that is why this is one story that they can never let die.
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