It comes as no surprise, though it remains a tiresome ploy, that Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair would avoid the word "referendum." The PQ wants to come to power in the March 26 Quebec election, and to get there it will need the support of many voters who, willing as they might be to choose an alternative to Jean Charest's Liberals, don't want to put the province through another wrenching, economically injurious exercise that sets friends and family members against each other and creates the sort of uncertainty investors hate.
So Mr. Boisclair speaks not of a referendum but of a "public consultation." Nicolas Girard, the PQ's chief campaign organizer, says, "The referendum law is called the law on public consultation. The terms mean exactly the same thing. They are synonymous." Except that public consultation sounds benign, as in a government reaching out to constituents to know how they feel on an issue, while a referendum, in the Quebec context, indicates that a government is trying to force a radical change on the people and is trying to get enough of them on side to make it happen. As far as the Parti Québécois is concerned, the people didn't speak in 1980. They got it wrong. So there had to be another referendum in 1995, and the people got it wrong then, too. The PQ is determined to do everything in canvassing the people's wishes except listen to what those wishes are.
Even those referendum questions, laboriously fashioned by Mr. Boisclair's predecessors, turned cartwheels to avoid asking Quebeckers whether they wanted to secede from Canada. In each case, the aim was described as sovereignty, not separation or secession. The 1980 question spoke of the government's desire to "negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada based on the equality of nations," in which Quebec would no longer be bound by Canadian laws, would levy its own taxes and would establish relations abroad ("in other words, sovereignty"), but would seek "to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency." The 1995 question was shorter but similarly freighted: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formaloffer to Canada for a new Economic and Political Partnership within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"
Jacques Parizeau, who was PQ premier at the time of the 1995 referendum, wrote in his 1997 book Pour un Québec souverain that the assurance of partnership negotiations was just smoke and mirrors; he would have moved quickly for a unilateral declaration of independence. It was the ambiguity of the questions and the machinations such as Mr. Parizeau's that prompted the federal Liberal government, with intergovernmental affairs minister Stéphane Dion as architect, to secure Parliament's passage of the 2000 Clarity Act. That law insists (among other things) on a clear answer to a clear referendum question before Canada will recognize the results of any future vote. Mr. Boisclair's coy talk of a "public consultation," to be held "as soon as possible in the next mandate" if his party wins power, should remind Quebeckers and other Canadians of why the Clarity Act was wise to insist on just that: clarity.