In the run-up to Quebec’s referendum, Canadians debated tortuously whether and how the French-speaking province could leave their 128-year-old federation. Did the constitution make any provision for a break? What legal obstacles could be employed to block secession? How would the national debt be divided? Could Quebec continue to use the Canadian dollar? It was all very stimulating, if inconclusive.
Meanwhile, politicians in Quebec City were ready for action. With opinion polls moving in their favour, the separatist leaders started to behave as if their dream of a new French-speaking country in North America was about to become a reality. What if it had?
Quebec’s Caisse de d?p?t et placements du Qu?bec, the giant public sector pension fund, would have intervened aggressively to buy Canadian dollars and treasury bills in the days after a “Yes” vote, as foreign investors dumped anything marked Canada or Quebec.
The ruling Parti Quebecois (PQ) would have named defence and foreign ministers-in clear defiance of the Canadian constitution-and served notice on Ottawa that negotiations should start immediately on new economic and political arrangements. The near certain breakdown of these talks, assuming they even got off the ground, would have been the trigger to proclaim the new Republic of Quebec, perhaps as early as next spring.
While Quebec City executed its well-mapped battle plan, the rest of the country would have been shocked, divided-and unprepared. Just a few weeks before the vote, the federalists were so confident of victory that they gave little thought to the consequences of defeat. One reason why Jean Chr?tien, the prime minister, refused to reveal his strategy in the event of a “Yes” vote was simply that he didn’t have one.
But Quebeckers would have been in for a few shocks of their own once the referendum celebrations were over. The flight of capital and talent from the province would have been immediate and severe. Non-francophones have been edgy since the separatists first took office in the mid-1970s. Mordecai Richler, the novelist, who lives in Montreal, wrote a few years ago: “What I blame the PQ for, unreservedly, is that I grew up in a city where an anglophone young man or woman could feel at home and anticipate settling into a future commensurate with his or her ability. This is no longer the case. Just about everything has been done to make the anglophone youth, even those who are…