Today, May 20, 2020, marks the fortieth anniversary of the first referendum in the Canadian province of Quebec. I recall casting my vote on that day at the school across from our home. It was, much like today, a beautiful sunny spring day.
The details of the vote have been well documented so I will not bore you with minutia. Suffice to say the two sides of the issue were those who wanted to begin the process of establishing an independent Quebec, outside of the Canadian federation, and would vote Oui; and federalists who wanted things to remain as they were, and would, therefore, vote Non.
The question itself generated much debate as it was nothing if not convoluted. The lengthy question and results are below. It was a decisive 60-40 victory for the Federalist side.
The Oui side, led by then Quebec Premier René Lévesque was devastated by the margin of defeat. Many of them gathered in an east-end arena for what they hoped would be a victory party. Sadly there were many tears, but none of joy. The room was smoky and hot, emotions were running high. Forty percent of voters’ dream had been quashed, at least for the time being.
While I never agreed with his sovereigntist position, I was a great admirer of Lévesque. His command of the English language was better than most mother-tongue English speakers. He had been a much-respected war correspondent prior to entering politics.
On the night of the referendum, when he made his way across the stage to the microphone to address an impassioned group of Oui voters who had just learned of their loss, he could have, with the wrong words, ignited a volatile situation.
But instead, Lévesque, all five and a half feet in stature, stood tall at the microphone and said Si j’ai bien compris, vous êtes en train de me dire: à la prochaine fois. (My dear friends, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying: ‘until next time.)
A lesser man would have worked up the emotional crowd and sent them off to do God only knows what. But he controlled a very volatile situation by reassuring those present that this was not the end of their dream. Just a delay. That’s responsible leadership at its best.