1980 Quebec referendum

From Academic Kids

The 1980 Quebec referendum was the first referendum in Quebec that put to public vote the role of Quebec within Canada and whether Quebec should pursue a path toward independent statehood ("sovereignty"). The referendum was called by Quebec's governing party, the Parti Québécois (PQ), which strongly favoured secession. See also 1995 Quebec referendum.

The province-wide referendum took place on May 20, 1980, and the motion to pursue Quebec's secession was decisively defeated by a 59.56 per cent to 40.44 per cent margin.


The question

Audio: Listen to the question as spoken first in the National Assembly of Quebec by Ren Lvesque

The question posed on the ballot was: "The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad — in other words, sovereignty — and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be effected with approval by the people through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?"

The players


Campaigning for the "No" side were those in favour of the status quo and reformists opposed to the secession of Quebec.

Key federalists:


Campaigning for the "Yes" side were those in favour of Quebec's separation from Canada.

Key sovereignists:

The campaign

Polls throughout the campaign gave little chance of a "Yes" victory, and the final result came as no surprise.

In a major gaffe on March 9, Cabinet minister Lise Payette denounced women supporters of the "No" side as Yvettes (the name of a docile young girl in an old school manual). She went so far as calling Claude Ryan's wife, Madeleine, an Yvette. This backfired spectacularly as the Yvettes, led by Madeleine Ryan, held a number of political rallies in response to her remarks.

The first of those rallies happened on March 30 when a group of 1,700 women held the brunch des Yvettes at the Chteau Frontenac in Quebec City. The major rally occurred at the Montreal Forum on April 7 when 14,000 women denounced the minister's declarations about women and manifested their support for the "No" side. This was the first major rally for the "No" side in the campaign. This would be followed by many more smaller rallies particularly by women groups.

At the National Assembly, Lise Payette would eventually apologize for her remarks.

During a major rally for the "No" side on May 14, six days before the vote, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promised to reform the Canadian Constitution if the "No" side won. Many people interpreted this as a promise to change the constitution to satisfy traditional Quebec demands. He asked the Quebec people to vote no, but warned the rest of Canada that a no vote did not mean that all was well and nothing would change.

The results

The referendum saw 85 per cent of registered voters vote with a large majority, 59.56 per cent voting no to 40.44 per cent voting yes.

Total votes% of votes
Valid ballots3,673,84298.26%
Rejected ballots65,0121.74%
Participation rate3,738,85485.61%
Registered voters4,367,584


In his concession speech Lévesque spoke the famous words "If I've understood you well, you're telling me 'until next time'." By contrast, the victory speech given by Claude Ryan was widely perceived as somewhat less gracious.

Despite the referendum loss, the PQ government was re-elected in the 1981 Quebec election. Meanwhile, the federal government of Pierre Trudeau renewed its efforts to patriate the Canadian Constitution and succeeded in doing so in 1982, outmanoeuvring Lévesque to gain the support of the premiers of other Canadian provinces in the so-called "Night of the Long Knives".

During much of the 1980s, Quebec sovereignty was perceived as a dead issue, and Lévesque himself put the issue on the back burner, opting instead for the beau risque of trying to work towards a deal with the Mulroney government. This led to a split in the Parti Québécois which led to Lévesque's resignation from politics in 1985 and eventually paved the way for Jacques Parizeau and the second sovereignty referendum of 1995.

However, for about 15 years, the ball was in the federalist court. On two occasions, federalist politicians attempted to find a solution to the Quebec question. Both the 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord ultimately failed to gather the support of the majority of Quebecers.

See also: Quebec Sovereignism

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