Would Jean Chrétien have sent the army into Quebec in the event of a close Yes victory in the 1995 referendum? Author Lawrence Martin suggests as much in Iron Man, his latest book on the prime minister's politics.
The more interesting question is not whether he intended to - only Chrétien knows for sure - but whether or not he could have done it even if he had wanted to. The answer to that question is crucial to understanding the events of 1995 and to predicting what could happen the next time. If there is a next time.
There are at least three reasons why Chrétien could not have sent in the army.
Reason No. 1: The army itself. Canada's chief of defence staff at the time, General John De Chastelain, already had said No to sending in soldiers to settle post-referendum conflicts. In December 1991, when support for sovereignty went over 65 per cent following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, the general declared that the role of the army is "not to do battle for the unity of the country." It is "to act as a centre of stability."
A few days later, he noted on Radio-Canada that soldiers and officers are also full citizens who have political opinions. Therefore, he concluded, if ever there were a "constitutional dismemberment of the country," they would be free to "make their own political choices."
Relying on those words, four days before the Oct. 30 referendum, Bloc Québécois MP Jean-Marc Jacob sent a letter to every soldier and officer stationed in Quebec. He assured them that when Quebec would be sovereign, not before, those who wished to join its new army would be welcome and would keep their ranks.
Given the bold and clear statements of his own chief of defence staff and the fact that a number of francophone soldiers and officers were sovereignists, it's highly unlikely Chrétien would have chanced a wave of disobedience within army ranks by calling on the troops to thwart a Yes victory.
Reason No. 2: Jacques Parizeau. Knowing that Chrétien was more likely to refuse a Yes victory than send in the army, Parizeau, then premier, had long and fully prepared. He was ready to move with measures intended to solidify the victory. One was to immediately reassure the financial markets that Ottawa had no more interest than he did in letting the dollar fall.
Another was a sizeable group of well-known federalists who had agreed privately to come out after a Yes victory to state that they recognized the results. Another was the guarantee that Parizeau had garnered from President Jacques Chirac that France's National Assembly would quickly pass a resolution recognizing the legitimacy of the vote. This was to send a clear message to the international community, including the Francophonie, and Washington, which wanted to see stability prevail so close to American borders.
Reason No. 3: Realpolitik. It's highly unlikely that most Canadians outside Quebec would put up with a prime minister who lost the referendum and who came from the province that had just voted Yes. So Chrétien might have intended to refuse to negotiate with Parizeau, but chances are the ROC would have sent him to the nearest unemployment office faster than he could have said "oops."
But another scenario was more likely. In the event of a close Yes vote, Chrétien could have been tempted to play the soft-line and very popular Lucien Bouchard against hard-line Parizeau, especially since Parizeau had named Bouchard negotiator in chief.
In Martin's book, Chrétien adviser Eddie Goldenberg confirms that his boss's intention was not only to reject a Yes but to propose changes to the federation instead. That would have been much closer to what Bouchard had battled for most of his career than what Parizeau wanted. Who knows what would have happened then?
So what are the lessons? Firstly, that the army is not a player in this issue. Secondly, that even if a close majority of Quebecers voted Yes, the prime minister could reject it or even to try to turn it into an offer of renewed federalism. It's called divide and conquer, or how to rely on those soft sovereignists who see a Yes vote mostly as a tool to garner concessions from Ottawa.
Thirdly, given this very real possibility of a refusal to respect a close Yes vote and the effects of the Clarity Act, some wonder if the time has come to forego the referendum as the key to independence.
There's even a group of young Parti Québécois and Bloc members who advocate a referendum-election instead. Quebec should leave Canada, they say, the same way it came in; through a majority vote of its elected representatives.
But the adoption of this position by the more conservative PQ brass is as unlikely as Chrétien sending in the army in 1995.