The just-released Grenier report on illegal spending by the Non side during the 1995 Quebec referendum seems less like a bombshell than a land mine. The scale and nature of the damage done will depend on who first happens to put a foot wrong in responding to Judge Bernard Grenier's findings.
For Quebec sovereigntists, the report confirms that Option Canada and the Canadian Unity Council did evade the spending limits imposed on both sides by Elections Quebec. But overall, those same sovereigntists must consider the report a disappointment: After years of talk about illegal spending running into seven or eight figures, Mr. Grenier's investigation was able to put its finger only on "approximately" $539,000 in illicit expenditures. Frankly, even some federalists must be asking themselves, "Is that all there is?"
It's also worth noting that the headline-grabbing figure of $539,000, as paltry as it is compared to what many were expecting, still overstates the issue when it comes to the sort of spending that is of most concern -- namely, that done in order to directly influence the outcome of the referendum. More than 40% of that figure was spent on public-opinion monitoring. It will be hard for Quebecers to argue that they were being "bought off " with money that was invested in gathering and interpreting their views.
Whatever the amount, some federalists -- Liberals in particular, but not only Liberals -- will be tempted to argue that the Non advocates guilty of diverting cash to the campaign are heroes who saved a nation and ought not to face punishment. But this argument concedes the sovereigntist premise that Quebec's independence was successfully bought for a mess of pottage, and it implicitly suggests that Canada did do and will do whatever was necessary to influence the sovereignty debate in Quebec, law be damned.
On the other hand, it would be a tactical mistake for the sovereigntists to try to make a mountain out of a half-million dollar molehill. Doing so will not only make them appear mired in the past, but it has the potential to remind Quebecois voters of Jacques Parizeau's "money and the ethnic vote" meltdown, and to compromise the new Parti Quebecois leader's assurances that she has no interest in referendums right now.
What the sovereigntists can do, and will do if they keep their wits about them, is to focus on Jean Charest. The Premier can point out that the bizarrely high proportion of rejected referendum ballots in federalist friendly ridings remains a more troubling fundamental question about the fairness of the vote. But on the whole, there is no way we can see for the former vice-president of the Non campaign to turn the Grenier report into a plus for himself. He faces the awkward choice of either defending the spending improprieties committed by the campaign, or falling back on the "I saw nothing, I heard nothing, I was just a figurehead" plea.
Maybe Quebecers are ready to forgive and forget after 12 years. But with Mr. Charest's minority government already suffering from low poll numbers in the midst of a major budget impasse, the Grenier report may be the thing that definitively knocks him off his perch. To the clear question, "Do you want Jean Charest to continue as your premier," a clear majority now seem likely to vote Non.