Canada and Quebec: The <i>Breaking Point</i>

The idea was to put together the story of the referendum where you see and hear from all sides of the story. <i>Breaking Point</i> however goes far beyond, with fresh interviews laying bare the emotions still raw ten years on.

In our society the words “Do you agree,” starts the question that too many answer with yes, leading to a life of togetherness, foreverness 'till death do them partâe¦ at least until the breakup.

Political reality ten years ago however was that a Yes to those words would have ushered in the breakup of Canada, which at the time was in the cyclical throes of the distinct problem known as Quebec separation.

The question was, “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new Economic and Political Partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”

The answer for Quebecois, and indeed the rest of Canada, was as ambiguous as the question. A remarkable 94.5 per cent turned out from la belle province on October 30, 1995 to have their say, and a bare majority of 50.6 per cent kept the country intact by voting No, with the federalists aided by a last-minute pouring of emotion, or the ethnic vote, or money, depending on who you talk to.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the referendum, CBC-TV will air Breaking Point, a four-hour documentary that executive producer Hubert Gendron says captures the events as told by the referendum's key players.

“The idea was to put together the story of the referendum where you see and hear from all the federalists, Ottawa federalists, Quebec City, Bloc Quebecois, Parti Quebecois, you hear their story.”

Breaking Point however goes far beyond, with fresh interviews laying bare the emotions still raw ten years on. There is then-premier Jacques Parizeau, blindsided just weeks prior to the referendum by deputy premier Bernard Landry, who accused Parizeau of acting on a reckless strategy. Blinking through a lowered gaze Parizeau describes how he felt, and still feels today, about the criticism.

“Several years have passed since then and when I think about that one, I still don't like to comment. I'm not sure I could keep my calm — (he looks up with a strained smile) — so I won't comment.”

Then there's an expressively smug-looking Preston Manning, reflecting that “Chrétien was very shaken that night, you could just tell. I just went home relieved but (with) no great feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment, just that Canada had escaped a disaster by the skin of its teeth — and in spite of the conduct of the government and the prime minister, not because of it.”

Not to be outdone is Jean Chrétien, repentant enough to acknowledge his astounding arrogance that the province would remain a part of Canada, despite attributing the disastrous No campaign to the “art, not a science” that is politics.

When Breaking Point first aired in mid-September, focus quickly gathered around the CF-18 jets that were reportedly flown out of Quebec. Retired Major-General Richard Bastien denied the allegations in an interview with the Montreal Gazette, saying instead that CF-18 exercises were postponed to avoid being seen as an evacuation measure.

Gendron stands by the report. “Strangely enough, (the report) wasn't denied by the current armed forces,” he says. “They got the former commander of the base, now retired, who confirmed there was a plan to move them out but he says it never happened.” And judging from an unofficial Canadian Army web site discussion forum even enthusiasts are unclear.

But Gendron says he had witnesses who assured him planes did leave, and together with flight logs obtained through access to information that detailed flight times and destinations, gave him enough confidence in the sources to air the controversial claims.

That was not the case however with the 86,000 spoiled ballots, which are under seal pending a court case. Gendron says he received photocopies of about 150 ballots from a lawyer in the case, but could not prove they were legitimate.

“I asked (the lawyer) for an affidavit. I said, 'look, Mr. So and Soâe¦ I want from you an affidavit saying that you are giving me these knowing that they are photocopies of the spoiled ballots which are now under seal and knowing that they will be presented on air as such. '”

The lawyer did not produce an affidavit so the footage was cut from the documentary, but Gendron says if he could have verified the ballots the implications would have been clear.

“The ballots that I sawâe¦ with the exception of two that I would have rejected, were No ballots, were valid. I mean if anything people were overemphatic, like they've gone over their X twice, but there's no doubt that it's an X, and no doubt that itâe(TM)s in the No slot.”

Since that original airing Gendron, who also produced Canada: A People's History, says Breaking Point has received something much more valuable than rave reviews: acceptance by the élites as an accurate, historical production.

“The reaction from the political class has been very, very comforting to us because nobody is accusing us of distorting their position.”

In a panel held mid-October Gendron says he heard four key players reference Breaking Point in their discussions, including sovereigntists Jean-François Lisée and Pierre-Paul Roy, advisors to Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard respectively, and federalists John Parisella, a former Quebec Liberal strategist, and Chrétien speechwriter Eddie Goldenberg.

“Nobody's arguing with the facts. We got the facts right.”

As for Chrétien himself Gendron doesn't know. “I could not pretend to tell you how Mr. Chrétien feels about it but the people around him reacted that they were portrayed fairly.”

Breaking Point is a production of Radio-Canada and the CBC and took about two years and $4 million to make, which divided by the eight hours (four English, four French) works out to about $500,000 an hour. Gendron says this is a bargain that doesn't discount the public broadcaster's responsibility for producing such projects.“Only a public network could have put that kind of money and that kind of time into it. No private broadcaster could even consider doing this kind of thing and rightly so. It's not their business, but it's our business.”

But Gendron is angry at access to information procedures which he says cost the project over $25,000.

“We have the largest collection of rejection slips on earth,” he says.

What will Gendron do on the night of October 30, ten years to the day when the country almost broke up?

“I'll probably be watching (the documentary) even though I've seen it,” he says with a chuckle. “You should too.”

Breaking Point airs October 30 and 31 on CBC-TV at 8 p.m. and again November 1 and 2 on CBC Newsworld.

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