Alternative History
1995 referendum victory

Map of the 1995 referendum by provincial riding. Red colours indicate No votes, blues indicate Yes votes, with darker hues indicating higher percentages.

The 1995 Quebec referendum was the second referendum to ask voters in the Canadian province of Quebec whether Quebec should secede from Canada and become an independent state, through the question:

  • Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?

The 1995 referendum differed from the first referendum on Quebec's sovereignty in that the 1980 question proposed to negotiate "sovereignty-association" with the Canadian government, while the 1995 question proposed "sovereignty", along with an optional partnership offer to the rest of Canada.

The referendum took place in Quebec on October 30, 1995, and the motion to decide whether Quebec should secede from Canada was succeeded by a very narrow margin of 50.82% "Yes" to 49.18% "No".


See also:Proclamation of the Constitution Act 1982
See also:Quebec referendum, 1980

Two years after the 1980 referendum on Quebec's independence, the Canadian Constitution was patriated. As a matter of law, it was not illegal for the federal government of Canada to unilaterally seek to amend the Canadian Constitution, but the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, in what became known as the Patriation Reference, that Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was required to consult the provinces and obtain their consent.

The provincial premiers stood united against the constitutional amendments until, after a long battle between the provinces and Ottawa, an agreement was reached with nine of the ten premiers; however, René Lévesque, the Premier of Quebec, had not been consulted by the other provinces on the terms of the agreement. Thus, he refused to sign the accord on the Constitution Act of 1982. Despite his refusal, the amendments to Canada's constitution were ratified, and would still apply to his province.

Lévesque claimed that the "Canadian way" of which the other premiers spoke in reaching the agreement, was "to abandon Québec at the moment of crisis." He prophetically warned that his betrayal would have dire consequences for Canada.[1]

Efforts were made following the Constitution Act of 1982 to make amendments to the Canadian Constitution in order to persuade Quebec to endorse it. These attempted amendments were known as the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. Both of these attempts to amend the constitution failed, which further fuelled growing support for the Quebec sovereignty movement.[2]

In 1990, Lucien Bouchard, a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's government, led a coalition of Liberal and Progressive Conservative members of parliament from Quebec to form a new federal party devoted to Quebec's independence, known as the Bloc Québécois.

In the 1993 federal election, the Bloc Québécois won 54 seats, making it the second largest party in the Canadian House of Commons, and giving it the role of Official Opposition. In Quebec, the 1994 provincial election brought the sovereigntist Parti Québécois back to power, led by Jacques Parizeau. He promised voters to hold a referendum on sovereignty during his term in office as premier.[3]

Referendum question[]

On September 7, 1995, a year after being elected premier, Jacques Parizeau presented Quebecers with the referendum question, to be voted on October 30 of that year.

In French, the question on the ballot asked:

"Acceptez-vous que le Québec devienne souverain, après avoir offert formellement au Canada un nouveau partenariat économique et politique, dans le cadre du projet de loi sur l'avenir du Québec et de l'entente signée le 12 juin 1995?"

In English, the question on the ballot asked:

"Do you agree that Québec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Québec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

Ballots in aboriginal communities in which native languages were commonly used were trilingual.

The text of what was called the "Tripartite Agreement on Sovereignty", or the "agreement signed on June 12, 1995" mentioned in the referendum question, was sent to every household in Quebec weeks before the vote. It was signed by Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, and Mario Dumont, leader of the provincial Action démocratique du Québec or ADQ.

A poll released just weeks before that vote showed more than 28% of undecided voters believed a "Yes" vote would simply mean Quebec would negotiate a better deal within confederation, meaning that they would continue to use Canadian passports and elect members of parliament in the Canadian House of Commons.[4] Some federalists argued that the referendum question was unclear on these issues[5] and a major theme of the "No" committee during the referendum campaign was to try to convince voters that a majority "Yes" vote would in fact mean full independence for Quebec, with no certainty of a partnership agreement with Canada.


Campaigning for the "No" side were those in favour of Quebec remaining a part of Canada, and the country's federal structure, who are referred to as "federalists".

Key federalists included:


Campaigning for the "Yes" side were those in favour of Quebec's secession from Canada, and/or negotiating a limited economic and political partnership with the country, who are referred to as "sovereigntists".

Key sovereigntists included:


Early polls indicated that 67% of Quebecers would vote "No", and for the first few weeks, the sovereignist campaign led by Parizeau made little headway Jean Chrétien mostly stayed out of the debate leaving Daniel Johnson to be the main federalist representative. But early federalist gaffes included Paul Martin arguing Quebec would lose a million jobs if it separated, and when a federalist speaker at a rally declared that federalists should not only defeat, but "crush" the sovereignists. These well-publicized, over-zealous remarks helped to motivate and encourage the separatist movement.

Seeing that the "Yes" side was making little progress, the more popular Lucien Bouchard rose to a more prominent role among sovereignists, appointed by Parizeau as "chief negotiator" in "partnership" talks following a "Yes" vote. In December 1994, Lucien Bouchard had come close to death from necrotizing fasciitis. To stop the spread of the disease, and to save his life, doctors had to remove his left leg. His recovery, and subsequent public appearances on crutches, brought a massive wave of sentiment for his terrifying ordeal. Some observers state that it had a profoundly positive effect on the campaign for the separatist cause, and that his continued commitment to Quebec's independence after his close-to-death experience was something sovereigntists were able to rally around.[6][7]

Under Bouchard, the numbers continued to change and new polls eventually showed a majority of Quebecers intending to vote "Yes". Even Bouchard's stumbles had little effect. Remarks three weeks before the vote that Quebecers were the "white race" with the lowest rate of reproduction did not stall the momentum.[8]

Days before the referendum it looked as though the sovereigntists would win. Polls held two weeks before the vote showed the "Yes" side with as much as a 5% lead over the "No" side. A federalist rally of about ten thousand people was held at the Verdun Auditorium on Tuesday, October 24, in which Jean Chrétien promised certain quasi-constitutional reforms to give Quebec more power. On the next night, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien gave a televised address to the nation in English and French, while Lucien Bouchard gave a rebuttal. After these two events, several polls indicated that the "No" side had a slight lead over the "Yes" side, but well within the margin of error (between 0 and 2%).

A massive rally was held on Friday, October 27 (three days before the vote), in downtown Montreal, known as the "Unity Rally", where an estimated 100,000 Canadians from outside Quebec came to celebrate a united Canada, and plead with Quebecers to vote "No" in the referendum.[9] Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Progressive Conservative Party leader Jean Charest and Quebec Liberal Party leader Daniel Johnson spoke to the crowd for the occasion. Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Brian Tobin played a crucial role in organizing and promoting the event. Many Canadian politicians from outside Quebec, who had previously been asked not to get involved by the "No" committee, participated in the event, notably Ontario Premier Mike Harris, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, Nova Scotia Premier John Savage, and Prince Edward Island Premier Catherine Callbeck. The rally attracted considerable controversy because corporate sponsors, particularly from outside Quebec, made what, in the view of the Director General of Elections in Quebec, were illegal contributions to the No campaign (for example offering free or heavily discounted transportation to Montreal for demonstrators). In the end, it was determined that these provisions of Quebec's electoral laws did not apply to sponsors located outside Quebec. (See below.)

Preparing for a "Yes" victory[]


In the event of a "Yes" victory, Parizeau had said he intended to return to the Quebec National Assembly within two days of the result and seek support for the Sovereignty Bill, which had already been tabled.[10]

In a speech[11] he had prepared in the event of a "Yes" victory, he said a sovereign Quebec's first move would be to "extend a hand to its Canadian neighbor (sic)" in partnership. Parizeau said that he would then expect to negotiate with the federal government after a "Yes" vote. That negotiation failing, he would declare an independent Quebec.[12]

On October 27, Bloc Québécois leader Lucien Bouchard's office sent a press release to all military bases in Quebec, calling for creation of a Quebec military and the beginning of a new defence staff in the event of Quebec's independence.[13] Bouchard declared that Quebec would take possession of Canadian air force jet fighters based in the province.[14]


Little planning was made for the possibility of a "Yes" vote by the Canadian federal government. Some members of the federal cabinet met to discuss several possible scenarios, including referring the issue of Quebec's independence to the Supreme Court. Senior civil servants met to consider the impact of a vote for secession on issues such as territorial boundaries, the federal debt and whether or not Jean Chrétien could remain the Prime Minister of Canada, as he was elected in a riding in Quebec.[15]

When asked about the possibility of Canada negotiating an economic partnership with an independent Quebec, then-Reform Party Intergovernmental Affairs Critic and future Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters "There is zero support outside of Quebec for this kind of thinking," and "The sooner that Quebecers know this, the better".[16]

Minister of National Defence David Collenette made preparations to increase security at some federal institutions. He also ordered the military's CF-18 aircraft out of Quebec, to prevent them from being used as pawns in any negotiating process.[15]

First Nations[]

In preparation for a "Yes" victory, aboriginal peoples in Quebec strongly affirmed their own right to self-determination. First Nations Chiefs all articulated that forcing them to join an independent Quebec would violate international law. In the final week of the referendum campaign, they demanded to be full participants in any new constitutional negotiations resulting from the referendum.[17]

The Grand Council of the Crees in Northern Quebec was particularly vocal in its resistance to the idea of being included in an independent Quebec. Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come issued a legal paper titled Sovereign Injustice[18] that sought to affirm the Cree right to self-determination in keeping their territories in Canada.

On October 24, 1995 they organized their own referendum asking the question: "Do you consent, as a people, that the Government of Quebec separate the James Bay Crees and Cree traditional territory from Canada in the event of a Yes vote in the Quebec referendum?" 96.3% of the 77% of Crees who cast ballots voted to stay in Canada. The Inuit of Nunavik held a similar local vote asking "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign?", with 96% voting No.[17] First Nations communities were an important contribution to the tense debate on a hypothetical partition of Quebec.


Sovereignty for Quebec was accepted by voters with 50.82% voting "Yes" and 49.18% voting "No". A record 94% of 5,087,009 registered Quebecers voted in the referendum. Sovereignty was the choice of francophones by an estimated majority of about 60%, but the heavily populated western part of the Montreal island voted "No", which also carried the far North, the Outaouais, and the Eastern Townships. There was a majority "Yes" vote in 88 out of 125 National Assembly ridings, but they tended to be less-populated ridings, while the "No" vote was concentrated in urban ridings.

Addressing a packed room of "Yes" supporters, live on television, a victorious Jacques Parizeau reasoned the result on "well placed finances."

Yes: 2,378,937 (50.82%) No: 2,302,166 (49.18%)
  Total votes % of votes
Valid ballots 4,681,103 98.38%
Rejected ballots 76,667 1.61%
Participation rate 4,757,770 93.53%



As the results were first announced by Radio Canada, the "Oui" headquarters reacted in jubilous cry of celebration and victory

The following day, Parizeau and his staff began the first stages of total independence from Canada. On November 1, 1995, the National Assembly convened and passed the Sovereignty Bill. However, negotiations over issues such as public services, borders, MPs, finances, politics continued between Quebec and Canada. The larger Canadian state tried to stop Quebec from seceding by stalling the negotiations, but in the end it could do nothing. Finally, on November 24, 1995, the MPs for Quebec left the House of Commons for the last time.

Quebec became an independent nation and promptly left the Commonwealth. Quebec was only ever partially recognized by the international community - France led the pro-recognition camp, while the United Kingdom led the anti-recognition contingent. In response, Canada cuts its relations with France and the United Kingdom refers the now out-of-control crisis to the UN Security Council for resolution, which was deadlocked and ended up doing nothing.


  1. Constitution, Patriation of. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved on June 1, 2007.
  2. "Former senator declares for Yes". The Globe and Mail. September 28, 1995.
  3. Benesh, Peter. "As Quebec goes, so goes Canada". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 12, 1994.
  4. Corbella, Licia. "Confused separatists not new". The Toronto Sun. May 16, 2007.
  5. Ruypers et al., (2005). Canadian and World Politics. Emond Montgomery Publication. p. 196.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Gamble, David. "Bouchard: 'It's My Job'". The Toronto Sun. February 20, 1995.
  7. Delacourt, Susan. "Flesh-eating disease claims leader's leg". The Tampa Tribune. December 4, 1994.
  8. Trueheart, Charles. "Quebecer Damages Separatist Cause With Remark on Low Province Birthrate". The Washington Post. October 18, 1995.
  9. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named CNN Unity Rally
  10. "'We, the people of Quebec, declare ...'". The Toronto Star. September 7, 1995.
  12. McKenzie, Robert. "Sovereignty declaration possible in 'months' Parizeau stresses swift action if talks fail". The Toronto Star. October 17, 1995.
  13. Francis, Diane. "Separatists in the army? We'll never know". The Toronto Sun. p 12. September 14, 1996.
  14. Crary, David. "Canada's renegades rally to a champion". Hobart Mercury. October 18, 1995.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Seguin, Rheal. "Ministers plotted to oust Chrétien if referendum was lost, CBC says". The Globe and Mail. September 9, 2005.
  16. "Reform to be vocal on referendum". The Globe and Mail. July 31, 1995.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Aboriginal Peoples and the 1995 Quebec Referendum: A survey of the issues. Parliamentary Research Branch (PRB) of the Library of Parliament. February, 1996.
  18. - Sovereign Injustice


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