Quebec remembers 1st referendum

Quebec politicians of all stripes are sharing their memories of the province's first referendum — held 30 years ago on Thursday — in which the majority of voters rejected the sovereigntist movement's dream of independence.
With his wife Corinne looking on, Premier René Lévesque tries to quiet the crowd in Montreal's Paul Sauvé Arena before conceding defeat on May 20, 1980, in the Quebec referendum. ((Canadian Press))

Quebec politicians of all stripes are sharing their memories of the province's first referendum — held 30 years ago on Thursday — in which the majority of voters rejected the sovereigntist movement's dream of independence.

Parti Québécois Premier René Lévesque called a referendum on May 20, 1980, seeking a mandate from Quebecers for his ultimate political goal of sovereignty-association and a new relationship with Canada.

Quebec voters were asked whether they wanted "a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations."

After a heated campaign, 59.66 per cent of Quebec voters said No and 40.46 per cent said Yes.

In conceding defeat, the charismatic Lévesque told disappointed supporters that "If I've understood correctly, you are telling me, 'Next time.'"

Quebec — and Canada —  would have to wait another 15 years for a second referendum vote, which came in 1995.

Quebec politicians remember 1980

While many players on Quebec's political scene today were actively involved in the 1980 referendum, current Premier Jean Charest admitted to reporters on Thursday he did not vote, because he was getting married that summer and was hard at work.

'No' supporters wave banners at Montreal's Verdun Arena as early returns suggested a victory for their camp. ((Canadian Press))

But he applauded the referendum as a fine example of civic participation. "There's one thing we can be really proud of, as Quebecers, is our sense of democratic duty. It was an exceptional exercise," Charest said.

Liberal Finance Minister Raymond Bachand was a fervent pro-sovereignty supporter at the time, and a key organizer for the Yes side campaign.

"I left [then labour minister] Pierre-Marc Johnson as chief of staff to go work for Mr. Lévesque, and it was a great exercise in democracy," Bachand told reporters. "It was a great day for democracy."

Like many Quebec politicians who switched allegiances mid-career, Bachand was asked to clarify why his beliefs have evolved.

"Thirty years later, the world has changed tremendously, and Quebec has changed, has progressed," he told reporters. "In the economic ensemble in the world, if you look at free trade, what Europe is today, what it was, 30, 40 years ago, it's a totally different world."

"Quebec has progressed, notwithstanding the Constitution."

Bachand said many Quebecers still believe in sovereignty and he "is going to respect that. But I think that the solution for Quebecers is to work inside this federation."

Quebec Solidaire MNA Amir Khadir, a physician by trade, told reporters he also worked for the Yes committee.

"I admit I did a couple of illegal things, like sticking stickers in places where they weren't supposed to go," he said.

PQ house leader Stéphane Bédard said he remembers his "magical thinking" that fateful night, when he ran back and forth between his family kitchen and television, trying to will poll numbers in favour of the Yes camp.

But he, like Charest, did not cast a vote. "I was 12 at the time," Bédard said.