Quebec referendum anniversary: Memories still raw 20 years later

Twenty years later, the federalist rally in downtown Montreal remains one of the most controversial events in the dying days of the referendum campaign.

Key players in 1995 referendum look back at Quebec history's most 'nail-biting, exhilarating' time

Thousands of people gather in downtown Montreal for a federalist rally, just days before the Oct. 30, 1995, referendum vote in Quebec. (CBC Archives)

For Liz Crompton, it was a moment in time she couldn't miss.

Working in Yellowknife, thousands of kilometres from home, she felt she had no choice but to fly to Montreal to attend the massive federalist rally, days before the 1995 vote on Quebec sovereignty.

'It was really difficult … watching this unfold in my home province,' recalls Liz Crompton, who was working in Yellowknife but flew to Montreal in 1995 to show her support for the No side. (CBC)
"It was really difficult … watching this unfold in my home province, it felt like you were watching from the outside," she said. "Having your own hopes and dreams about what your home would look like and not being able to do anything about it, not have a voice."

Crompton was one of the tens of thousands who packed into Place du Canada in downtown Montreal to make their presence count as a vote to save a unified Canada.

"It really felt like everyone was very fond of Quebec and they wanted Quebec to stay," she said. "[There was] a sense of positivity and hope."

'No' controversy

Twenty years later, the rally remains one of the most controversial events in the dying days of the referendum campaign.

Bernard Landry, former Quebec premier and a key player on the Yes side in 1995, says there's still hope for Quebec sovereignty. (CBC)
Former Quebec premier Bernard Landry, a key player on the Yes side, remembers it very differently from Crompton.

For the former Quebec premier and life-long sovereigntist, it was another sign the federal government was not respecting spending limits during the emotional campaign.

"It was part of the wrongdoing, because it was done with my money, with my taxes," he told CBC News this week.

"That referendum was stolen because the federal government wasn't fair," Landry added.

He said the bitter disappointment was keenly felt the night of the vote, with the Yes side losing by a razor-thin margin: 50.6 per cent to 49.4 per cent.

But Landry also sees hope in the results of the last referendum. He said that hope endures 20 years later, even though the sovereigntist movement is reeling after a drop in popular support for the Bloc Québécois, and the Parti Québécois is once again confined to the opposition benches at the National Assembly.

"When I was in elementary school, we were French-Canadian. The word 'Canadian' was in it," Landry recalled. "Today, my children and my grandchildren are Québécois and Québécoises. We have found our name and the attachment to Canada is less important today than in 1995," he said.

That sentiment of hope is echoed by Jean-François Lisée, a current PQ member of the National Assembly who in 1995 was working closely with then Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau.

PQ member of the National Assembly Jean-François Lisée worked closely in 1995 with then premier Jacques Parizeau on the Yes campaign. (CBC)
"We believed that we would lose for most of the campaign and we only started accepting the possibility of victory in the last two days, so it wasn't crushing not to win," he said, adding that the sovereignty movement gained 10 percentage points between the 1980 and 1995 referendums.

As the Yes side conceded defeat, Parizeau blamed the loss on "money and the ethnic vote."

Both Lisée and Landry acknowledged Parizeau's infamous comments were regrettable and hurt the movement at the time.

A federalist sigh of relief

On the No side, panic began to set in during the final week of the 1995 referendum campaign, as the Yes side continued to climb in the polls.

Eddie Goldenberg, senior adviser to then prime minister Jean Chrétien, calls it a "very stressful" time.

"We were tense and we were trying to figure out, 'What do you do now?'" he recalled. "We were comfortably ahead and this happened suddenly."

He credits Chrétien's televised address, pleading with Quebec not to break up the country, as a late turning point that helped counter Yes negotiator Lucien Bouchard's charm.

"At the end of the day, we won by not very much," Goldenberg said.

He also blames the other side for dubious tactics, such as writing a referendum question that was 43 words long.

"The question was a crooked question," Goldenberg said. "They didn't have the guts to ask a clear question."

Crompton wasn't able to vote on that question, but she feels she played her part.

"I'm very glad I did come back for [the rally]" she said. "It felt momentous, even more so when I was here on the ground with everybody."

WATCH: The 1995 Quebec referendum in 60 seconds

7 years ago
Duration 1:04
A look back the 1995 Quebec referendum in 60 seconds.


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