Bruce Yaccato is a journalist and author, and is currently Executive Editor of WordsPerfect Communications
Even from a distance, the similarities between the imminent Scottish referendum and the Quebec referendum of 1995 are striking. From the momentum of the separatist forces to the tepid, even lame, efforts by the No camp.
But: spoiler alert! Readers not familiar with this film should know that Quebec remained part of Canada.
If there is one striking difference between now and 1995, it’s in the polls. The Yes and No sides in Scotland appear to be an eyelash apart. Whereas in Quebec the Yes side seemed to be peaking at the right time, four points ahead with a week to go. On that news the Toronto Stock Exchange registered it biggest drop in six years.
At the time, No supporters looked with alarm and envy at the separatist Lucien Bouchard. He was charismatic, eloquent and brimming with Gallic passion. He had an imposing bearing like De Gaulle or Napoleon.
There was nothing even close to him in the No camp. They stuck to the same lame messages that led to their second-place status: Canada is the best country in the world; voting yes will devastate the Quebec economy; and so on. Right or wrong, they were just uninspiring and couldn’t possibly change hearts and votes as the day of reckoning approached.
Ken Dryden was a member of the legendary Montreal Canadiens, an author, politician and business executive. Just days before voting day, he remarked:
“The energy and initiative, the excitement and pride, the fun, are all on the Yes side. Ask the No side for a vision of their own and the retreat is on.”
All seemed lost, and the rest of Canada (or TROC as it was called) was too stunned to do anything.
Then, on the last weekend, a partly organised, partly spontaneous sort of English-Canadian Woodstock happened. Many partisans were brought in by professional organisers. But many others paid their own way to come from across the country for a last-minute pro-Canada rally. It seemed improbable at best, and more likely impossible, that a corny, schmaltzy and emotional “I ♥ Quebec” fest could close the gap.
On the night of the vote, with the result too close to call, I couldn’t bear the tension and went to a movie adaptation of an Elmore Leonard book called Get Shorty. I like Elmore Leonard’s work a lot, yet I have very little recollection of the film. Instead, I vividly recall exiting the theatre into a desolate and deserted downtown Montreal. It was so quiet I thought there may have been a mandatory evacuation order I’d missed. A little way off, I could hear a single car, honking its horn wildly. I sensed that I would know who had won when it turned the corner. As it eventually spun towards me, I could see the red and white of the Canadian flag, and I exhaled for the first time that night.
After its lifeless campaign, the No side really had no business winning. And while there is no proof that the rally won it, there is little else to explain it. It changed just enough minds to prevail.
If there is a lesson to learn it’s that corny, schmaltzy and emotional might once have actually saved a country from splitting up.