"Acceptez-vous que le Québec devienne souverain, après avoir offert formellement au Canada un nouveau partenariat économique et politique, dans le cadre du projet de loi sur l'avenir du Québec et de l'entente signée le 12 juin 1995?"
["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?"]
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October 30th, 1995:
Every eye in the Prime Minister's Office was transfixed on the television, watching as the vote count rolled in. They all knew how it was going to go; just like 1980. Québec would vote to remain in Canada, and the separatist movement would die a second death. The government had made no serious plans to deal with the possibility of a "Yes" victory, so sure were they of victory.
But circumstances were not like 1980. While the Parti Québécois had dominated Quebec politics at the time, René Lévesque had always opposed running separatist candidates at the federal level, so Quebec continued to be a battleground between the Grits and the Tories. Meech Lake changed everything. After the Mulroney government's best efforts failed to convince Québec to endorse the 1982 Constitution, a number of Members of Parliament, from both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, defected to form the Bloc Québécois; a federal separatist party that would run with the PQ's blessing. The 1993 election would take the Bloc to official opposition status, with them nearly sweeping the province. Out of 65 ridings, only 21 did not elect a Bloc Québécois candidate.
With the failure of Meech Lake and the federal level success of the Bloc, separatism's second wave was at a fever pitch. Both "Yes" and "No" sides were convinced that they would win, and what neither could anticipate was just how close it would be.
Late October often brings unseasonably bad weather to the Canadian east. Snow on Halloween was the rule, not the exception; and even today remains a distinct possibility, though rain is more likely. This year's weather, though, would be even more unusual: the day of the election, the city of Montreal was hit by a freak snowstorm. An anglophone stronghold in Quebec, Montreal would be the source of many of the "No" votes. But with wet snowfall, bad driving conditions, and all-around terrible weather, many voters decided to stay home.
The Prime Minister and his aides looked on in horror as the final vote was tallied. By less than a percent, Quebec had voted for sovereignty.
: By all accounts, the Federal government had no contingency plans for a "Yes" victory. IOTL, some aspects of it would later be decided by the Supreme Court and the Clarity Act, but these were done with an eye to future referendums, and we cannot infer with certainty that the same conclusions would have been reached in a scenario where Québec has already voted for sovereignty.
It is important to note that critically important questions, like "How large would the yes-voting majority have to be?" or "Can Québec unilaterally secede in the first place?" were not settled at the time, and to this day have never been settled definitively. The Clarity Act of 2000 decided that a "clear majority" would be necessary for sovereignty negotiations to even begin, but the Act explicitly left the definition of "clear majority" to the Supreme Court's discretion.
: Our POD. IOTL, the 1995 referendum was decided by less than 2% of the vote. Even a small change could have tipped the scales, and ITTL, it does.