The real scandal: obscured by sponsorship

Paul Martin is the reason there was a sponsorship programin the first place.

The sponsorship scandal started with the attempt to clean up the mess left by the close call in the 1995 Quebec referendum. Though it is not widely recognized, the 1995 Paul Martin budget made the sovereignty vote much closer than it should have been.

The 1995 budget cut unemployment insurance benefits significantly. At the time, EKOS polling told the Liberals that denying people access to benefits they had paid premiums to receive was going to slide by without too much notice in much of English-speaking Canada (though not, as it turned out, in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick) but that it was a potential “bomb” in Quebec.

The basis of the attachment of people to their country is concrete. The Liberals reduced what Canadians were prepared to do for other Canadians when they hit UI, health care and social transfers in the 1995 budget.

At the time of the 1980 sovereignty referendum, the Pierre Trudeau government held 74 of 75 Quebec seats. In 1995, the YES side had some 50 Bloc MPs campaigning across the province. They had been primed by the very able UI critic Francine Lalonde on the social policy reform process that culminated in the Martin budget: chopping UI benefits, the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan, and cuts to health care and post-secondary education transfers.

The YES forces were able to campaign in outlying regions with high seasonal unemployment rates, and shout that not only were people not finding jobs, they were going to lose unemployment insurance benefits. How true it was.

The referendum results show the YES gained ground in the Bloc ridings. What looked to be another 60/40 split, as in 1980, turned into a race in doubt until the last hour. Of course, it is important to acknowledge the impact on the YES campaign of the arrival of Lucien Bouchard at its head, and the decision to campaign on an association with Canada, and not just on independence. But the social cuts and the UI cuts in particular had the effect EKOS predicted.

The bomb went off.

Jean Chrétien cried in front of his caucus the day of the vote. His strategy after the referendum, designed and carried out by Jean Pelletier, and others, was patronage ridden. Instead of programsfor people designed to make real cash contributions to dealing with problems life throws at all of us, the consultants were brought in, and the ads rolled out. Some of the UI money was made available on a riding-by-riding basis for community projects. That led to the HRDC scandal. Most of the UI money went to pay down the debt. Also, the Liberals put in place the public relations program, the infamous sponsorships.

All the flags in the world could not make up for what the Liberals had taken away from those in Quebec and Canadians elsewhere — money for social assistance; support for university education and health care; and in case of job loss, insurance that would cover a sizable portion of their lost earnings. These are the ties that bind Quebecers to Canada, yet Martin, supported by others, did his cuts while preparing to fight the 1995 referendum in Quebec.

In the coming election, the sponsorship scandals should not obscure the real scandal behind the scandals — the 1995 Martin budget which trashed UI, and cut money for health, education and social assistance.

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.