'Startling Nonchalance' and the 1995 Quebec Referendum

I recently finished reading The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was, by Chantal Hébert (with Jean Lapierre). The book profiles seventeen Canadian political leaders from the 1995 referendum. Federalists and sovereignists are represented, as are the perspectives of four premiers beyond Quebec.

The book has received plenty of acclaim, and addresses a very interesting question: what would would have happened had the sovereignists emerged from the polls victorious in 1995? I was in high school at the time of the events covered in The Morning After, and these were the days when I first began to pay attention to Canadian politics. I remember having a sense that although I may not have known what would ensue, surely somebody did. I'm pretty sure I wasn't alone in thinking that.

It's probably for the best that we couldn't see what was happening behind the scenes. Sure, some people had plans for what happened next, but no two people seemed to agree on what that entailed. Most worrisome to me is the chapter on Jean Chrétien. Check out the following excerpt from The Morning After:

In the lead-up to the 1980 referendum, Pierre Trudeau had taken little for granted. On his government’s orders, federal bureaucrats had sketched out contingency plans to deal with a federalist defeat. Not in 1995. Complacency was a factor. The No camp was long convinced a win was in the bag and the polling numbers had backed up its confident forecast. But another element was also at play. In 1980, Jean Chrétien — then Trudeau’s lead minister on the referendum trail in Quebec — had resented the energy that the civil service had expended on worst-case scenarios, fearing their work would backfire in Quebec by suggesting a lack of confidence within the federalist camp. So anxious had the planning made him, he’d wanted briefing notes on the matter shredded to prevent any chance of a leak. Chrétien was not so politically naive as to take a victory for granted. But if worse came to worst, he reasoned, there would be time enough to regroup after the vote.

Need I remind you, the federal side eked out a bare majority - 50.6% to 49.4%. While Chrétien intended to reflect a sense of bravado and confidence, his strategy now reeks, with the benefit of hindsight, of startling nonchalance. Teenaged me would not have been comforted knowing that this was how the prime minister was handling the Quebec referendum. No siree.