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"C'est vrai, c'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent puis des votes ethniques, essentiellement."

On October 30, 1995, then-Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau walked onto a Quebec City stage and gave what remains to this day the most infamous concession speech in Canada's history. The pro-sovereignty camp had just narrowly lost the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum --  50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent.

The camp's two other leaders, federal Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard and lone Action Democratique du Quebec MNA Mario Dumont had already conceded defeat earlier in the evening.

Both had invoked the image of former premier Rene Levesque, whose concession speech after the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty had been a rallying point for the bruised movement. "Si je vous ai bien compris, vous êtes en train de dire: à la prochaine fois," he'd said.

(In other words, "If I understand you correctly, you are saying: until the next time.")

The referendum 

The "next time" had been an exhausting battle, filled with raw emotion on both sides. The result was as close as close could be, with Canadians watching in shock as the "oui" side first took a lead, and the two sides hit an even 50-50 split. There had been accusations throughout the campaign that the "non" side had broken several laws, including those surrounding campaign spending. The 1995 Canadian Unity Rally, "oui" supporters said, was one such violation that went unpunished.

The "oui" side had focused on appealing to all the Quebecois, regardless of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds, religion or even language. Determined to get every vote possible, they explained that it was perfectly all right for anglophones to support sovereignty. Sovereignty was not about hating Canada, they said, but about loving Quebec. All that "pure laine" stuff that had spouted from the mouths of the movement's most prominent leaders was bunk, right? Right.

When the major networks began projecting a "non" victory, Parizeau's advisers began drafting his concession speech. The other two leaders would speak as well, of course, but their speeches would be drafted by their own advisers -- and as premier and leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, Parizeau's speech was going to be the big one. The original message stressed unity and the need to fight even harder next time to secure victory.

Parizeau arrived on stage with his wife, Lisette Lapointe, to a thunderous ovation from the otherwise distraught crowd. As he waited for the noise to die down, the assembled masses began to sing Gens du pays, the folk song by Quebec songwriter Gilles Vigneault that had become an anthem of the sovereigntist movement. Parizeau joined in, then began his speech.

Everything seemed to be going normally. Parizeau's top aide, Jean-Francois Lisée, was standing near the back of the hall with his press secretary when he heard the premier veer off track. Lisée would later tell CBC documentarians that he heard Parizeau use "nous," the French word for "us," in reference solely to French-Canadians, and he knew they were in trouble.

"On va parler de nous à 60 pour cent. On a voté pour."

("We'll talk about 60 per cent of us. We voted in favour.")

He went on to suggest that the next time, the sovereigntists should just aim their efforts at French speakers, because that's how they'd win. 

Political suicide in six words or less 

Half a minute later: "C'est vrai, c'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent puis des votes ethniques, essentiellement."

("It's true, it's true we were beaten, yes, but by what? By money and the ethnic vote, essentially.")

The statement was greeted with subdued applause -- not as much as the man's arrival or the early results showing the "oui" side in the lead, of course, but rather substantial applause considering what the man had just said. Lisée, mortified, later reflected that his gut reaction was to get the hell out of the building and that he was in the process of doing so when he ran into Parizeau, who apparently interpreted the look of sheer horror on his top strategist's face correctly and asked him if he felt his speech was "too harsh."

"I said, 'you bet it's too harsh,'" he told the CBC during an interview for Breaking Point, a documentary released on the referendum's 10th anniversary. "'You were worried about being insulted, now you're going to be insulted.'"

Parizeau, of course, was insulted. The "oui" camp had denounced his remarks moments after they got out. Major network coverage focused on them for the rest of the night. My dad, to this day, tells the story of how he was watching the speech live on CTV, which for some reason wasn't translating it into English simultaneously, when he could swear he thought he heard the man blame his loss on money and ethnic voters.

"Then Lloyd Robertson came on and said 'Did he just say money and the ethnic vote?" 

Parizeau called a press conference for the next day, where he resigned as leader of the Parti Quebecois and as premier of Quebec. He faced questions about whether his comments were the result of alcohol consumption that night (footage of him pacing the hotel room in which he watched the results, drink in hand, were all over the networks even before he gave the speech). He said it was not.

He never apologized for the remarks.

Ten years later, when he participated in the CBC's documentary, he said that his comments were made out of anger and spite at the result, not at anger and spite at any particular group. He went on to say that the first person he blamed was himself. That may be the case, but even if it is, he blamed himself privately and then proceeded to blame some rather controversial things publicly.

Breaking Point was a massive project on the part of the CBC. It was produced both in English and in French, and released as both a two-part documentary and a book. The documentary's editing is among the best I've ever seen. As Parizeau gives his speech and his infamous, career-ending line nears, the editors decide that we need to instead see the fleur-de-lys-adorned faces of some of the "oui" supporters, who spanned many, many cultural, ethnic and religious groups, sulking at the reality of their loss.

And then we see their faces after their leader blamed that loss on two things: money and the ethnic vote. 

Further viewing

"This sounds too ridiculous to be true," you say. Well, thanks to the miracle of the internet, you can see Parizeau's entire speech, career-ending statement and all, on YouTube. It is entirely in French, of course, without subtitles or translation, but you can follow along with the transcript in the information field.


 

References:

Cardinal, Mario. Breaking Point: Quebec/Canada - the 1995 Referendum. CBC. 2005. (Book)
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Breaking Point: Quebec/Canada - the 1995 Referendum. (TV documentary)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Money_and_the_ethnic_vote

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