"Oui" or "Non"
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A Fragile Unity
"Oui" or "Non"
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"Oui" or "Non"
Canada's future teeters on the brink as Quebecers decide if they want to remain in Confederation
In May 1980, Canada appeared on the verge of splitting apart as Quebecers searched their souls to choose between their province and their country.
In 1968, René Lévesque founded the Parti Qubcois whose main goal was Quebec sovereignty. Pictured here, Lévesque greeting supporters after his 1973 election defeat. (National Archives of Canada, PA-115039)
In 1968, René Lévesque founded the Parti Qubcois whose main goal was Quebec sovereignty. Pictured here, Lévesque greeting supporters after his 1973 election defeat. (National Archives of Canada, PA-115039)

In an extraordinary referendum launched by Premier René Lévesque and his Parti Québécois, voters were asked if they wanted to negotiate sovereignty-association from the rest of Canada.

Sovereignty-association was a limited form of separation from Canada. The Parti Québécois wanted the province to have "the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency."

Around the country, Canadians were captivated by the referendum campaign. Within Quebec tensions and emotions ran high as families, friends and neighbours passionately debated "Oui" (supporting separation) or "Non" (opposing separation).

Premier Lévesque had folk-hero status among fervent "Oui" supporters. Lévesque, a former Radio-Canada broadcaster, had formed the Parti Québécois in 1968 and was elected premier eight years later.

His party led a masterful campaign early on. Lévesque and his team worked to keep the momentum going, overseeing every detail and providing media coaching for those who were not adept at television interviews.

Lévesque knew his main challenge would come from a man hed known for 25 years, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau was a fervent Canadian nationalist and had recently been re-elected with a majority government. But in the first weeks of the referendum campaign, Trudeau kept a low profile.

In Quebec, provincial Liberal leader Claude Ryan, who failed to arouse much passion, led the "Non" campaign. Watching from Ottawa, Trudeau sent in reinforcements - his spirited justice minister Jean Chrétien.

In April 1980, six weeks before the referendum, the "Oui" side was ahead in the polls by three points.

But Lévesque knew the crucial undecided vote was the key to victory. And those voters were becoming increasingly nervous about the sovereignty-association proposal. Opponents pointed out that Lévesques request for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty left the issue open-ended and ill defined.

While Lévesques team worked to deliver the message that an independent Quebec would prosper, the federal government assessed the various debts the province would depart with and warned of higher taxes, insignificance on the international stage, and economic calamity.

In a speech in Quebec City, Trudeau complained that Lévesque did not "have the courage to ask a simple question, do you want to separate from Canada, YES or NO?"

As referendum day drew closer, Lévesques rhetoric heated up.

Then a Parti Québécois cabinet minister stumbled. Lise Payette, a high-profile feminist, belittled women who support the "Non" side by implying they were subservient "Yvettes". It was interpreted as an insult to all homemakers.

The "Non" side quickly seized on the opportunity, filling the Montreal Forum with supporters. The "Yvette" rally was huge boost for the federalist campaign.

And then, just a week before the vote, Trudeau weighed in with one of the most powerful speeches of his career at Paul Sauve Arena in Montreal,

"My name is a Quebec name. But my name is a Canadian name also ..."

It was at this rally that Trudeau made a historic pledge.

"Im telling you in other provinces that we will not agree to your interpreting a non vote as an indication that everything is fine and can remain as it was before. "

Quebecers interpreted this as a promise of fundamental change to Canadian Confederation. But Trudeau never spelled out what he meant.

"But what change?" Lévesque complained. "The sphinx kept his secret,"

On referendum day, May 20th, the turnout was the biggest ever for a political vote in Quebec.

The first results showed the "Oui" side was behind. And soon the historic referendum was over. Quebecers voted 60 per cent against sovereignty-association, and 40 per cent in favour of it.

Addressing the emotional crowd at Paul Sauvé Arena, Lévesque promised another attempt at independence.

"I must admit that tonight I would be hard pressed to tell you when or how. In the meantime, we must live together."

Lévesque began to sing "Gens du pays," the Gilles Vigneault song that had become a Quebec nationalist anthem. At its conclusion, he said, "À la prochaine" ("Until next time") and left the arena.

For René Lévesque and Pierre Trudeau, this round was over. But the uncertainty would remain.

A year later, Lévesques Parti Québécois was re-elected, winning a comfortable majority with 80 seats, nine more than in 1976.

"We felt the euphoria of the resurrected whom most people had written off as dead and buried a short time before," Lévesque said. "Yet I had to remind the thousands of supporters come to celebrate this rising from the tomb that it would fade with the dawn."

A second referendum on Quebec sovereignty was held on October 30, 1995. The question asked voters whether "Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership."

The "Non" side won again but it was the narrowest of victories. The final tally was 50.6% voting against sovereignty and 49.4% voting for Quebec independence - or about 55,000 votes out of 5.7 million cast.

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