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1980 Quebec Referendum

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1980 Quebec Referendum

Template:Infobox Referendum The 1980 Quebec referendum was the first referendum in Quebec on the place of Quebec within Canada and whether Quebec should pursue a path toward sovereignty. The referendum was called by Quebec's Parti Québécois (PQ) government, which strongly favoured secession from Canada. See also 1995 Quebec referendum.

In 1979, the Quebec government made public its constitutional proposal in a white paper entitled Québec-Canada: A New Deal. The Québec Government Proposal for a New Partnership Between Equals: Sovereignty-Association. The province-wide referendum took place on Tuesday, May 20, 1980, and the proposal to pursue secession was defeated by a 59.56 percent to 40.44 percent margin.[1]

The question

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 only be implemented with popular approval 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 original French text was:

«Le Gouvernement du Québec a fait connaître sa proposition d’en arriver, avec le reste du Canada, à une nouvelle entente fondée sur le principe de l’égalité des peuples ; cette entente permettrait au Québec d'acquérir le pouvoir exclusif de faire ses lois, de percevoir ses impôts et d’établir ses relations extérieures, ce qui est la souveraineté, et, en même temps, de maintenir avec le Canada une association économique comportant l’utilisation de la même monnaie ; aucun changement de statut politique résultant de ces négociations ne sera réalisé sans l’accord de la population lors d’un autre référendum ; en conséquence, accordez-vous au Gouvernement du Québec le mandat de négocier l’entente proposée entre le Québec et le Canada?»

The participants


Favoured the "No" vote. Believed in Canada's national unity and opposed the separation of Quebec.

Key federalists:


Campaigning for the "Yes" side were those in favour of the Quebec's government's proposal. The president of the Yes Committee was René Lévesque.

Other key sovereigntists:

The campaign

Initially, polls hinted at a possible victory for the "Yes" side. While the election of Pierre Trudeau energized the federalists, relations between him and the former Le Devoir editor and now Liberal Leader, Claude Ryan, were frosty - dating back to the FLQ Crisis. Nonetheless, the two agreed that a modus vivendi would need to be worked out as the stakes were too high to permit personal disagreement to assist the sovereigntists. Trudeau and Ryan were also helped by a political and public relations disaster that the Pequistes themselves created.

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 Château 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, stating that Quebec's "historic demands" would be fulfilled. Many nationalists interpreted this as a promise to change the constitution to satisfy traditional Quebec demands for more provincial powers. He had asked all the Quebec people to vote no and warned the rest of Canada that a no vote did not mean that all was well and nothing would change.

The results

No: 2,187,991 (59.56%) Yes: 1,485,851 (40.44%)
Total votes  % of votes
Valid ballots 3,673,842 98.26%
Rejected ballots 65,012 1.74%
Participation rate 3,738,854 85.61%
Registered voters 4,367,584


Maximum amount authorized by referendum law: $2,122,257 ($0.50/voter x 4,244,514 voters)

No Committee:

  • State subsidy ($0.25/voter): $1,061,128.50
  • Amount received by political parties: $987,754.04
  • Contributions by voters: $11,572.60
  • Total fund: $2,060,455.11
  • Total committed and discharged expenditure: $2,060,455.00

Yes Committee:

  • State subsidy ($0.25/voter) : $1,061,128.50
  • Amount received by political parties: $683,000.00
  • Contributions by voters: $305,118.05
  • Total fund: $2,049,246.55
  • Total committed and discharged expenditure: $2,047,834.00



Template:See In his concession speech Lévesque said, "If I've understood you well, you're telling me 'until next time'."

Despite the referendum loss, the PQ government was re-elected in the 1981 provincial 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 Kitchen Compromise.

It is unclear whether Trudeau's promise of "renewed federalism" was a deciding factor in the vote to stay. The constitutional changes that Trudeau undertook was a patriation of the Constitution from Britain, thereby eliminating the last control the British Parliament had over Canada, and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Trudeau had always made it clear that this was the first change he would make to the Constitution, beginning with a speech as a young Minister of Justice at a first ministers conference on the constitution in 1969. However, his use of the words "renewed federalism" was ambiguous and some people expected that he would increase Quebec's powers and jurisdiction, even though he had been consistent since that first speech that he would only discuss division of powers after phase one, patriation with an amending formula and a charter, and phase two, institutional renewal including upper chamber reform, were completed. At the time, support for patriation and the charter was high across Canada, including among the Quebec francophone population.

During much of the 1980s, Quebec sovereignty was perceived as a dead issue. In 1984, Brian Mulroney led the Conservative to victory federally in Canada and had committed during the campaign to trying to find a way to accommodate Quebec's demands, claiming the Quebec had been left out of the 1982 constitutional amendments. Lévesque pledged to take the beau risque of trying to work towards a deal with Mulroney. This led to a split in the Parti Québécois which led to Lévesque's resignation from politics in 1985.

With the election of the Quebec Liberal government of Robert Bourassa, the Mulroney government began negotiations with Bourassa's to find a deal that would be acceptable to them and to all the other premiers in Canada. The 1987 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord. The Meech Lake Accord was opposed by aboriginal leaders, who were able to block its ratification in the Manitoba legislature due to the objection of Elijah Harper, and the Newfoundland legislature rescinded its ratification in response to Premier Clyde Wells's belief that it undid the progress achieved in the 1982 constitutional amendments and would undermine the Charter of Rights. The Charlottetown Accord was defeated in most provinces through a country-wide referendum, including in Quebec.

By opening the constitutional question and failing to achieve change, separatism rose in Quebec and Jacques Parizeau came to office as premier as head of the pro-independence Parti Québécois. This led to the second sovereignty referendum of 1995.



  • Government of Québec (1979). Québec-Canada: A New Deal. The Québec Government Proposal for a New Partnership Between Equals: Sovereignty-Association, Québec: Éditeur officiel du Québec, 118 p. (online)
  • DGEQ. "Référendum du 20 mai 1980", in the site of the Directeur général des élections du Québec, updated March 20, 2006
  • Lévesque, Michel and Martin Pelletier (2005). Les référendums au Québec : bibliographie, Québec: Bibliothèque de l’Assemblée nationale du Québec (online)
  • "À la prochaine fois: The 1980 Quebec Referendum", in The CBC Digital Archives. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. [11 TV clips, 14 radio clips]
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