Chantal Hébert was about to take the stage at the Knox Presbyterian Church on Monday night, in front of a packed audience of political junkies waiting, with bated breath, for their next fix of astute political commentary. Just as she took excited first steps toward the lectern, her CBC colleague and tactful interviewer for the evening, Rosemary Barton, began reading off Hébert’s long—very long— list of accomplishments, at which point the guest of honour took a step back down to her seat, stole a sip from her glass of wine, and let out a confident laugh in the comfort of her chair.
There really needs be no introduction for Hébert nowadays. With columns in the Toronto Star and L’Actualité, a regular presence on CBC’s At Issue panel, and a legion of followers across the country, Hébert comes as close to being a rock star as a political analyst can truly be on either side of the Ottawa River. Her trademark wit and no-nonsense commentary has earned her praise, a few cold (and powerful) shoulders, and, luckily for us, was on full display that night.
Fresh from the publication of her surprising new book, The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day that Almost Was (written with the support of former federal politician Jean Lapierre), Hébert spent the evening sharing crunchy—and highly unsettling—revelations from her series of interviews with the politicians at the centre of the 1995 referendum campaign that almost tore the country apart. Focusing on both the federalist and sovereigntist camps’ plans in the event of a Oui vote on that fateful October day, she slowly built up to the stunning conclusion that neither side had prepared for that possibility. In fact, confusion and silent chaos seemed to dominate political war rooms leading up to the final vote count.
This revelation, it turns out, took even the seasoned columnist by surprise. Shaking her head in disbelief as she spoke, Hébert reported that on the day of the referendum, Québec Premier Jacques Parizeau would no longer return Bloc leader—and star of the Oui campaign—Lucien Bouchard’s calls. The sovereigntist camp, it now appears, could not agree on the significance of a Yes vote, with Bouchard seeing it as a chance for renewed federalism, whereas Parizeau was fully intent on swiftly declaring independence. “Imagine that,” she said, still exasperated.
Meanwhile, as Hébert shared with authority, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had “not seriously entertained the notion of a separatist victory for most of the campaign,” despite Reform leader Preston Manning’s calls for action, resulting in a last-minute appeal for votes and the formation of a positively Orwellian-sounding Unity Cabinet. The author, much like her audience, was aghast at the implications of such recklessness in the face of national divorce. Yet close to 20 years later, these revelations were often greeted by laughter in the audience. The emperor had no clothes, yes, but how could we not laugh in the comfort of our seats as Hébert detailed these absurd interviews with her deadpan delivery?
“You are much funnier than Peter Mansbridge allows you to be,” quipped Rosemary Barton near the end of the evening. Perhaps so. But we would be remiss if we did not underscore the importance of Hébert’s work, in documenting the history of the day that almost was. For while we greeted her work with resigned laughter on Monday night, we—political junkies or not—owe Chantal Hébert, once again, much of our understanding of the Canadian political scene.