Neverendum Referendum – Reflections of a Former Quebecer

The question of independence has been discussed by the people of Quebec for decades and today they still remain part of Canada. What can the UK learn from the Quebec referenda? In light of the upcoming UK referendum, Robin Geller, Registrar at the University of Bristol, provides her first-hand insights on the “Neverendum Referendum”.

I was living in the province of Quebec during both the 1980 and 1995 referenda on Quebec independence. Indeed, I was born and grew up in Montreal – the largest city in a province with a long history of secessionist movements. The Party Quebecois (PQ) was formed in 1968 and its primary goals were to obtain political, economic and social autonomy for the province of Quebec. Its first and most charismatic leader, Rene Lévesque, introduced the strategy of referenda early in the 1970s.

At the time of the first referendum I was 19 years old and it was the first time that I had ever voted. Coming from an English-speaking family living in cosmopolitan and bilingual Montreal, there was never much question of how I would vote but the same wasn’t true in many other families, nor among staff in many businesses. I can’t remember whether the university sector took a position but I do recall that the campaign was acrimonious and that it divided families as well as parts of the province. But the outcome was clear – the ‘Remain’ side won with a clear 60/40 majority in favour of remaining within Canada. Nonetheless, the uncertainty in the lead up to the referendum (and thereafter) had a clear and negative impact on the economy – and some would say on the ‘mood’ – of the province.

Many Quebecers hoped that this decisive ‘win’ would mark the end of the movement but, of course, the views of those who felt passionately about the need for an independent Quebec had not changed. The question of separation continued to be debated and to play a significant role in both the economic and political landscape – at times appearing to be the dominant issue.

However, after the 1980 referendum, support for the PQ waxed and waned. My connection to Quebec also became less strong – I attended university in the province of Ontario and, after finishing university, settled into a life in Ontario where I married my husband and had two children. Fate, however, drew me back to live in Quebec in the summer of 1995 – just before the second independence referendum in October 1995. Again – a highly divisive campaign and, again, the uncertainty had a significant impact on the economy of the province. The outcome of this referendum was much closer than the first: the ‘Remain’ camp winning by the narrowest of margins: 50.5% to 49.5%.  The frustration among those supporting independence, to lose by such a close margin, was palpable and included legal challenges to the vote counting (number of ‘spoiled ballots’) and campaign spending.

And so, it was after the 1995 referendum that a Canadian journalist coined the term ‘neverendum’: “A series of referendums on the same issue held in an attempt to achieve a different result.”

Twenty years have now passed since then and the question of Quebec independence has never gone away. The issue continues to divide families, and has exhausted many Quebecers – both English and French-speaking – many of whom have voted with their feet and left the province in order to live in a political environment that isn’t so frequently and passionately dominated and influenced by this highly emotive and divisive issue.

The arguments and approaches that characterise much of the Brexit debate – and indeed the Scottish referendum – remind me a great deal of the rhetoric, including some of the scare tactics, that typified the two Quebec referenda. These emotive campaigns created personal and professional rifts, caused long term changes in the political environment and, some would argue, have had a significant and negative long term impact on the Quebec economy.

In the end, although only by a hair, the desire to maintain the status quo, to remain part of a larger whole, ultimately won out in the Quebec referenda. Perhaps that will, in the end, be the outcome here in the UK. I certainly hope so. But, even if the ‘Remain’ campaign ultimately prevails, I suspect that the Brexit issue will continue to impact and perhaps even dominate the political landscape in the years ahead, with the potential knock-on impact on the economy. The genie is out of the bottle. Welcome to the Neverendum Referendum – UK style.

Image Credit: 203.365 – July 22, 2010 by Morgan is licensed under CC BY 2.0