For years, Quebec separatists have claimed that Ottawa "stole" the 1995 referendum on Canada's future by illegally pumping millions of dollars into the federal campaign and skewing the results.
Yesterday, retired Quebec judge Bernard Grenier issued a report that confirms federalists did cheat, but on nothing like that scale.
The separatist Yes and federalist No camps were each entitled to spend just over $5 million. The federalists spent $539,460 improperly, but they also failed to spend their $5 million allocation. Grenier says they could have lawfully spent $376,000 more, had it been properly accounted for. That would have left them just $163,497 in the wrong.
And this was no ad blitz. Of the $539,460, $463,000 was used for polls and consultants. Just $21,000 went to ads and communications.
Grenier also found no evidence that federalist politicians, including current Quebec Premier Jean Charest did anything illegal. Or that the money helped fund the huge pro-Canada rally in Montreal on the eve of the vote. At the end of the day, Grenier cited five low-profile officials from the Council for Canadian Unity, Option Canada and the No committee, for improper spending or faulty oversight.
Yesterday Charest called the report a "damp squib," rather than dynamite. He's right. Even so, he may pay a political price. His weak Liberal government is unpopular, and these findings won't help.
But no one came out of Quebec's tainted referendum looking good. The pro-Canada forces won by a wafer-thin margin of 54,000 votes.
And federalists themselves felt cheated because votes in strong federalist ridings were declared to be "spoiled" at a shockingly high rate. In Chomedy near Montreal, a federalist bastion, 11.6 per cent of votes were declared invalid. The provincial average was 1.82 per cent. Many feel the dizzy rate of spoiled ballots has never been credibly explained.
As well, the question itself was deceptive. It asked whether Quebec "should become sovereign" after offering Canada "a new economic and political partnership." That left charismatic Yes figure Lucien Bouchard talking reassuringly of new talks between Canada and Quebec after a vote to secede, even as Parti Quebecois premier Jacques Parizeau quietly planned a unilateral declaration of independence.
The referendum was not Quebec democracy's finest hour. Some federalists played dirty. But so did separatists. Their complaints about being cheated need to be weighed in context.