There's a voice we hadn't heard yet in reaction to the federal auditor-general's report on the sponsorship scandal. That's the voice of the man who brought Quebec within a hair of a sovereignist victory in 1995 sending then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien into a national-unity propaganda spending frenzy.
That man is former premier Jacques Parizeau. In an interview, he recalled how he saw the beginnings of Chrétien's post-referendum offensive as he was preparing to leave in 1995.
"What I didn't have the time to see," he noted, "was the kind of shameful patronage that would later turn into a veritable wave. What we see now is huge, really huge."
Asked what distinguished Chrétien's methods from Pierre Trudeau's, Parizeau noted "there's a difference in means, but the spirit is the same. Ottawa looks to prevent at all costs the independence of Quebec whatever it takes. Trudeau went as far as to jail 500 Quebecers (in October 1970) for no reason other than to battle sovereignty and paint it as a violent movement."
As for Chrétien, Parizeau added, "he summed up his vision of things pretty well when he declared in 2002 'today's results show that my government acted properly since there's much less of a danger of separation than there was back in 1995'." As the auditor-general's report confirms, for Chrétien, the end justified the means.
So he unleashed a pro-unity campaign of unprecedented scope to increase Canada's visibility in Quebec and strengthen Quebecers' identification with Canadian symbols, and reduce support for sovereignty. This, he hoped, would either abort a third referendum for lack of support or win it, should one ever be held again.
The auditor-general's report points to a central aspect of Chrétien's Propagandagate: the sponsorship program. Allegations of corruption and money laundering spring from the channeling of $250 million of public funds to sponsor events in Quebec, including $100 million that went to Liberal-friendly communications firms.
In the face of this scandal, Paul Martin and his ministers chose to behave like the famed three little monkeys: They saw nothing, heard nothing and said nothing. We're asked to believe in the volatile post-referendum period, Martin, the second most powerful man in the Chrétien government, knew nothing or that key ministers, either from Quebec or outside, had no knowledge of any of this wrongdoing.
With the amounts involved and the political ramifications of these sponsorships, the overall order to promote unity at all costs had to come straight from the PMO. But the harsher question raised by Norman Spector, former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, is how this alleged widespread ignorance would be nearly impossible, given the hierarchical nature of the federal government. Could anything so big have happened without the knowledge of certain deputy ministers who would inform the chiefs of staff who, in turn, must inform their ministers?
Given the scope of this scandal and its raison d'être to prevent another referendum, Parizeau said this should prompt sovereignists to reflect on how it might affect their own approach.
"One thing is now clear: Through all these years, we followed the laws adopted by René Lévesque on the referendum and the financing of political parties. We obeyed the law and we were had like children. Now we see that the federal side resorted to illegal means and influence peddling. So we must ask ourselves: what do we do in order to remain respectful of the criteria of honesty we chose for ourselves while no longer being as naive as we were?"
There's no ready answer, he said, "but it's clear that this scandal will accelerate debate within the PQ as to how sovereignty could be achieved the next time, not in the sense that this scandal is any reason for us to be less honest - on the contrary - but in the sense that we must cease being such easy targets."
Last weekend, PQ members were debating exactly that in the corridors of their national council meeting. A growing number are openly questioning Bernard Landry's position, which amounts to repeating what the PQ did in the past even though it failed. Few were taken by his promise of a referendum in 2008, especially when he said he would hold such a vote only within "reasonable circumstances." To many, that sounded like Lucien Bouchard's "winning conditions" that led to nothing.
So an alliance of young and old PQ members launched the Mouvement pour l'élection reférendaire (MER) and a Web site (www.mer.sytes.net) that promote sovereignty through an electoral mandate, instead of a referendum.
But whatever roads it might explore, this new alliance seems to agree with Parizeau in the need to search for a new approach. One that would no longer render sovereignists vulnerable to the seemingly limitless means and unethical measures some federalist forces have demonstrated since the last referendum.