Pierre Trudeau, no to Quebec sovereignty, 1980

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gave a famous speech in 1980 opposing sovereignty for Quebec

Early in 1980, Premier René Lévesque and the Parti Quebecois launched a referendum on sovereignty association. Lévesque wanted voters to say yes to a sovereign Quebec that would form a commercial and trade association with the rest of Canada. Trudeau made only three campaign appearances, his last in the crowded, steaming Paul Sauvé arena in Montreal on 14 May 1980. He seized on a Lévesque quip that Trudeau was not a real Quebecer because his mother was of Scottish descent. Trudeau responded by using some of his favourite techniques: Socratic questioning, crisp logic, and blunt attack.

“We are going to say a resounding, an overwhelming no”

Historic moment

I want to thank you for this warm welcome. I think it is obvious by this immense gathering, it is obvious that these are historic moments. There are very few examples in the history of democracy of one part of a country choosing to decide, for itself and by itself, whether, yes or no, it wants to be part of the country to which it has always belonged. There are very few occasions when this has happened in the history of democracy. And I believe that all those here this evening, all those who have worked for the No in this province for over a month, will be proud to reply when . . . our children and perhaps, if we are lucky, our grandchildren, ask us in twenty or thirty years: “You were there in May 1980. You were there when the people of Quebec were asked to decide freely on their future. You were there when Quebec had the option to stay in Canada or to leave. What did you do in May 1980?” “No, that was our answer” . . .

Hucksters of yes

And it is the undecided, those who are on the Yes side through pride, or because they are tired and fed up, who, in these last few days, must be addressed. So let us consider this: The government of Canada and all the provincial governments have made themselves perfectly clear. If the answer to the referendum question is no, we have all said that this no will be interpreted as a mandate to change the Constitution, to renew federalism . . .

We know very well what they are doing, these hucksters of the yes vote. They are trying to appeal to everyone who would say yes to a new agreement. Yes to equality of nations. Yes at the same time to association. Yes at the same time to a common currency. Yes to a second referendum. Yes to a simple mandate to negotiate.

It is those who say yes through pride or because they do not understand the question, or because they want to increase their bargaining power, and to those among the undecided who are on the brink of voting yes, to whom I am addressing myself this evening, because what we have to ask ourselves is what would happen in the case of a yes vote, as in the case of a no vote.

Renewed federalism

Library and Archives Canada

And I make a solemn declaration to all Canadians in the other provinces, we, the Quebec MPs, are laying ourselves on the line, because we are telling Quebecers to vote no and telling you in the other provinces that we will not agree to your interpreting a no vote as an indication that everything is fine and can remain as it was before. We want change and we are willing to lay our seats in the House on the line to have change. This would be our attitude in the case of a no vote . . .

Yes or no?

Here is a party whose goal was separation, then independence, then sovereignty, then sovereignty-association, and then they even said that sovereignty-association was only for the purposes of negotiation. Here is a party that, in the name of pride, said to Quebecers: Stand up, we are going to move on to the world stage and assert ourselves.

And now, this party, on the point of entering the world stage, gets frightened and stays in the wings. Is that pride? Should we use that as a reason to vote for a party that tells us it will start all over again if the answer is yes, that there will be another referendum?

Well, that is what we are criticizing the Parti Québecois for—not having the courage to ask a clear question, a question a mature people would have been able to answer, really a simple question: Do you want to leave Canada, yes or no?

Answer is no

The answer is no to those who advocate separation rather than sharing, to those who advocate isolation rather than fellowship, to those who, basically, advocate pride rather than love, because love involves challenges coming together and meeting others halfway, and working with them to build a better world. So then, one must say, leaving that whole convoluted question aside, one must say no to ambiguity. One must say no to tricks. One must say no to contempt, because they have come to that.

My name is Elliott

I was told that no more than two days ago Mr. Lévesque was saying that part of my name was Elliott and, since Elliott was an English name, it was perfectly understandable that I was for the No side, because, really, you see, I was not as much of a Quebecer as those who are going to vote yes.

That, my dear friends, is what contempt is. It means saying that there are different kinds of Quebecers. It means that saying that the Quebecers on the No side are not as good Quebecers as the others and perhaps they have a drop or two of foreign blood, while the people on the Yes side have pure blood in their veins. That is what contempt is and that is the kind of division which builds up within a people, and that is what we are saying no to.

Of course my name is Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Yes, Elliott was my mother’s name. It was the name borne by the Elliotts who came to Canada more than two hundred years ago. It is the name of the Elliotts who, more than one hundred years ago, settled in Saint-Gabriel de Brandon, where you can still see their graves in the cemetery. That is what the Elliotts are. My name is a Quebec name, but my name is a Canadian name also, and that’s the story of my name.

World is watching

My dear friends, Laurier said something in 1889, nearly one hundred years ago now, and it is worth taking the time to read these lines: “My countrymen,” said Laurier, “are not only those in whose veins runs the blood of France. My countrymen are all those people, no matter what their race or language, whom the fortunes of war, the twists and turns of fate, or their own choice, have brought among us.”

All Quebecers have the right to vote yes or no. And all those no’s are as valid as any yes, regardless of the name of the person voting, or the colour of his skin. My friends, Péquistes often tell us: The world is watching us, hold our heads high; the world is watching us, the whole world is watching what is happening in our democracy. Let’s show them we are proud . . .

We are against independence. Of course the world is watching us. The world will be a bit astonished by what it sees. I admit, because in today’s world . . . you see, things are unstable, to say the least. The parameters are changing, to use a big word. And that means that there is fire and blood in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Vietnam, that means that there is inflation which is crippling the free economy; that means that there is division in the world; that means there is perhaps a third of the human race which goes to bed hungry every night, because there is not enough food and not enough medicine to keep the children in good health.

No, no, no

And that world is looking at Canada, the second largest country in the world, one of the richest, perhaps the second richest country in the world . . . a country which is composed of the meeting of the two most outstanding cultures of the western world: the French and the English, added to by all the other cultures coming from every corner of Europe and every corner of the world. And this is what the world is looking at with astonishment, saying: These people think they might split up today when the whole world is interdependent? When Europe is trying to seek some kind of political union? These people in Quebec and in Canada want to split it up?


. . . they want to take it away from their children . . .


. . . they want to break it down? No. That’s what I am answering.

I quoted Laurier, and let me quote a father of Confederation who was an illustrious Quebecer: Thomas D’Arcy McGee: The new nationality, he was saying, is thoughtful and true; nationalist in its preference, but universal in its sympathies; a nationality of the spirit, for there is a new duty which especially belongs to Canada to create a state and to originate a history which the world will not willingly let die.

Well, we won’t let it die. Our answer is no to those who would kill it.


Library and Archives Canada
“The Right Honourable Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Speech at the Paul Sauvé Arena, Montreal, Quebec, May 14, 1980.”

More information

CBC TV News Video clip [2:07] Trudeau PQ Referendum
The Canadian Encyclopedia: Pierre Elliott Trudeau


2 thoughts on “Pierre Trudeau, no to Quebec sovereignty, 1980

Add yours

  1. Hello Dennis,

    Thanks for sending this Speech. Those years were politically intense and so very captivating.

    I found a bit more information on the speech Pierre Trudeau gave to the House of Senate on March 30 ,1988. I have not seen or read that speech in its entirety. Only short clips of it:

    [ https://www.nationalnewswatch.com/2021/03/30/on-this-day-in-canadas-political-history-appearing-before-the-senate-former-pm-pierre-trudeau-attacks-meech-lake-accord/#.YJLSR2ZKj0o | https://www.nationalnewswatch.com/2021/03/30/on-this-day-in-canadas-political-history-appearing-before-the-senate-former-pm-pierre-trudeau-attacks-meech-lake-accord/#.YJLSR2ZKj0o ]

    I have tried to locate the full presentation on line, but have not had any luck. Do documents like this exist in some special library or Hansard?

    I hope you are doing well these days and have managed to get your first vaccine shot by now.


    Sheldon Oleksyn Spruce Grove, AB


    1. Thanks for your comment Sheldon. And yes, we can find Pierre Trudeau’s speech from his Senate committee appearance in 1988. The proceedings of committees are recorded and transcribed. If you can’t find it, I will look for it and get back to you.


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