In the pantheon of history-altering near-misses, few political events have left as large and lasting a “What if?” as the 1995 Quebec referendum. On Oct. 30 of that year, Quebec’s citizens voted by the thinnest of margins to remain part of Confederation. While ultimately leading to a rejection of Quebecois sovereignty, the referendum threw open the blinds on a nation truly divided, marked by deep schisms between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and within Quebecois society itself. Today, with Quebec’s fractious politics again making national headlines, it seems appropriate to look back at this seminal moment in the history of the province, and the country.
Best-selling author and Trent University historian Robert Wright takes on the daunting task of recording those tumultuous times with laudable aplomb. The Night Canada Stood Still is a chronological account of the events leading up to the referendum, including the infamous debate surrounding the phrasing of the fateful question, and culminating in the vote counting that had Canadians glued to their televisions.
Relying primarily on media sources, Wright seeks to tell the story of how politicians in both the “Yes” and “No” camps tried to sell Quebec’s voters on their respective visions. This sets up, as the book’s protagonists, the odd couples of Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau and Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard on the Yes side, and, on the No side, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Daniel Johnson, leader of Quebec’s provincial Liberals. This format makes for an exciting read, full of political drama and electioneering that shows, above all, how federal politicians’ cavalier assumption that separation was impossible almost made it a reality.
By focusing on politicians, however, Wright gives very little consideration to Quebec’s voters and the broader systemic problems that made almost half of them so disillusioned with Canada. Instead, the electorate is relegated to statistics in opinion polls, a herd swayed primarily by emotive speeches and charismatic leaders. This omission leaves many questions unanswered and, worse, reduces the referendum’s real issues to electoral politicking. Wright tells a good tale, and it is one well worth reading, but it is certainly not the whole story.