The separatist Parti Quebecois won the 1976 election on a platform of Quebec sovereignty. Premier René Lévesque soon announced that there would be a referendum on sovereignty association in May 1980. He made this major speech in the Quebec Assembly on March 4, 1980.
Fellow Quebecers, we have now all reached this deciding moment. After years of discussions, constitutional crises, inquiries, and reports, the time has come to freely and democratically choose the path to our future. The people must give the matter much thought when the moment comes to take this direction and commit to its collective destiny. We, Quebecers, where do we come from? Where do we stand and what are our chances of growing and developing? There are so many questions that we must ask ourselves in order to enlighten the vote . . .
The course of action that leads us to the referendum, the one that we propose, is faithful to Quebecers’ most profound and most constant aspirations, and it is also the only one that will release us from the vicious circle that impedes our crise de regime. Only political ostriches or very naïve or presumptuous people would refuse to acknowledge that the repeated failures of all the governments that looked for a solution in the tinkering of the regime, and also that the gap between Quebec’s reality and English Canada’s is widening, inevitably lead us to the following conclusion: it is only a majority commitment, a massive majority as much as possible, for change in equality by Quebecers as a whole, that will ever allow us to initiate the indispensable process . . .
The Quebec government respects [the] national English Canadian reality and does not intend to impose any political system upon it. We will not reproach Canadians of the other provinces for being attached to the federal regime as it essentially is, for acknowledging its obvious advantages, and history proves that they were right to acknowledge them, and for always trying to conform this regime to their own aspirations.
But even though this system did work, and everyone acknowledges this, first and foremost to the advantage of the English Canadian majority, in particular Ontario, and that moreover Quebec finds itself increasingly in the minority, it is normal to seek new forms of co-operation by proposing an alternative solution that endeavours to respect the needs and the most central aspirations of both parties . . .
In fact, the only way we can hope for a new balance—and events have confirmed this for many years—is, on the one hand, through Quebec’s recuperation of exclusive power to create our laws without having others step on our toes, to levy and use all our taxes here, all the public incomes that we pay, precisely, for our development; and on the other hand, in order to maintain a common economic space in which no one, from one side or another, would be deprived by this, the continuation of an economic association that would entail joint use of the same currency.
Mandate to negotiate
The government asks for a mandate to negotiate a new agreement that responds to these two demands, no more, no less. However, we are not asking for a blank cheque either. We are not asking citizens to approve in advance the outcome of this course of action. We commit to not making any definitive changes in political status without having again consulted the population because we are aware of the fact that no serious political change can be contemplated, and certainly not be realized, without the formal and unflagging support of the majority of citizens.
Moreover, this is the reason why—I have said this many times, and I want to repeat it—the government will respect, until the end of its mandate, the majority decision that will come out of the referendum, in no way disregarding the collective will. It would be desirable to have the same guarantee from those who are preparing to defend the negative option during the upcoming campaign. It would be good for such guarantees of democratic respect of the will of citizens to be given immediately, as of now, before intense debates take over.
Yes or No
Whereupon, we must honestly ask ourselves: What would be the impact of a yes or a no; what would one or the other bring in the foreseeable future? I think that many Quebecers—and every day there are more and more, if I am not mistaken—are already aware of what a negative response would mean. It would establish once again, and for a long time, Quebec’s dependence on the English Canadian majority. It would establish once again, and for a long time, Quebecers’ status of inequality and, even worse, an increasing minority situation within the federal unit. It would be the continuation and perpetuation of never-ending conflicts, federal-provincial dead ends, innumerable overlaps in which responsibility is diluted, and so much energy, resources and time is wasted in a constantly growing sterility . . .
The “yes” finally ensures a breakthrough. It is open to change within the scope of continuing development and maturing of an entire people. It is the clear proclamation of a desire for equality and for equality lived not only on paper. It is the certain and definite condition for cultural security with chances for this culture to fully blossom, for the identity it has formed through generations, and for the development of all this unlimited potential for which, like all societies, we will have to count on ourselves first. This “yes” is at the same time a better balance and a fairer sharing in the economic partnership with the rest of Canada. It would eliminate factors that hindered our development at many levels, and in particular, at the economic level . . .
We will persist until we forget what Mercier, in the last century, referred to as our fratricidal struggle. I am deeply convinced that those who will have done it, including some of our friends opposite, will be extremely proud the evening of the referendum when a solid majority of the population will have said yes—yes to Quebec, yes to its present maturity, yes to all its chances for a open and responsible future.
Debates of the National Assembly of Quebec (1979-80, Vol. 21) 4962–69.
Note: This speech was delivered in French and has been translated.
National Assembly of Quebec: (Biography) René LÉVESQUE
The Canadian Encyclopedia: René Lévesque
CBC Archives: When René Lévesque and the PQ swept into power in 1976
(Print story and video)
National Library and Archives of Quebec