Foreign interference is nothing new in the sovereignty debate

Before the 1995 referendum, Jean Chretien asked Bill Clinton to make a pitch for unity

Boisclair à Paris

A few years before the 1995 referendum, Quebec comic JiCi Lauzon ran down cited a couple of things the sovereignists had promised wouldn't change if Quebec became a country.
"Canadian passports, Canadian money," he recited, referring to assurances that Quebecers might keep their Canadian citizenship and continue to use Canadian currency. "Gee, maybe we've already separated and we don't know it."
Lauzon was just a little ahead of his time. This week we were informed that Quebec is indeed sovereign, by a French presidential candidate.
Segolene Royal made this startling announcement in the course of her awkward attempt to minimize her apparent endorsement of Quebec sovereignty after a meeting in Paris with Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair.
Royal had told Quebec journalists she was in favour of "the sovereignty and the liberty of Quebec." What she meant by that, she said subsequently, is simply that Quebecers would choose their own destiny, since, "as in every democracy, it is the voting public that is sovereign and free." That is, her defence was that she had merely mouthed a platitude containing a ringing endorsement of the status quo.
She had miscalculated badly. Encouraged as Quebec sovereignists may have been by her initial remarks, they aren't eligible to vote for her. And in the French political class, sympathy for Quebec sovereignty has gone out of fashion. The French press, including the leftist daily Liberation, treated the remarks as the latest in a series of foreign-policy gaffes by the Socialist candidate.
The remarks were drawn to the attention of the press by the immediate strong reaction against them by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as other Canadian federalists.
Among the latter was former prime minister Jean Chretien, who said he "can't understand how she could have made a statement of that kind, it's very offensive for Canadians."
For a province whose licence plates bear the motto "Je me souviens," we sure forget stuff.
Boisclair said he didn't ask Royal for a public endorsement. But if he had, it would have paled in comparison to what Chretien himself once did.
For Chretien invited not just a candidate but a foreign head of state to meddle in the internal affairs of the country of which he was prime minister at the time. And he did it during a campaign.
It was late in the campaign for the 1995 referendum, when the federalist side was in serious trouble, that Chretien successfully appealed to United States President Bill Clinton to make a public statement in favour of Canadian unity.
"He asked him to help," said James Blanchard, who was U.S. ambassador to Canada at the time, in an interview for a CBC-Radio-Canada television documentary on the 10th anniversary of the referendum.
But Chretien isn't the only participant in that campaign whose recollection of events in relation to American intervention is selective or faulty.
Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe said he was "astonished" at what he called the overreaction to Royal's remarks on the part of federalists.
But that response was restrained compared to the heated letter to the White House in which Bernard Landry, then Quebec's minister of international affairs, all but threatened reprisals for a pro-unity statement by then secretary of state Warren Christopher during the 1995 campaign.
For when it comes to outsiders sticking their noses into our family squabble, both sides have the same double standard: Meddling is OK when it's on our side, but not when it's on the other side.
And both sides will continue to appeal to the sympathy of outsiders, first to influence Quebecers' decision, then on the question of whether a unilateral declaration of Quebec independence would be recognized by such powers as France and, especially, the U.S.
It remains to be seen whether Royal's flip-flop will have any effect on support for sovereignty here. But for Boisclair, at least it momentarily distracted public attention from the grumbling in the PQ about his leadership.
Don Macpherson is The Gazette's Quebec-affairs columnist.

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