Today marks the 15th anniversary of the so-called "Unity Rally" in Place du Canada/Dorchester Square, Montreal, three days before the Quebec referendum of 1995. This rally brings up some interesting issues about referendum rules.
The rally was the last major public event of the "No" campaign. As polls indicated that the vote would be much closer than anticipated, both the "Yes" and "No" campaigns added additional last-minute rallies and speeches to their agendas, which had not been planned or budgeted for. The "Unity Rally" organizers encouraged Canadians outside Quebec to come to Montreal for the rally. Some individuals flew to Montreal for the event, while some groups rented busses. Certain transport companies that supported the "No" side provided discounts for people to fly to Montreal during the period, while some businesses provided impromptu time off for their employees to attend.
Quebec's Referendum Act provided a C$5,000,000 budget for each campaign. Under the law, individuals and associations could not spend their own money to campaign for their side, except as authorized by one of the campaigns, and only then up to C$600. Quebec's Director General of Elections took particular exception to people outside Quebec spending over C$600 and/or not getting authorization from the "No" Committee for their expense, and in particular issued a warning to transport companies offering subsidized travel and companies offering paid leave that these would be considered as unauthorized referendum expenses: www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/english/news-detail.php?id=1684
However, the Director General's efforts to investigate and prosecute people were hampered for two major reasons: (1) the Director General does not have authority outside Quebec, and (2) the Referendum Act's spending limits were found to be contrary to the freedom of expression requirements of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms: http://csc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/1997/1997scr3-569/1997scr3-569.html
This episode brings up some key legal issues in independence referendum campaign rules:
- are actors outside of the area where the referendum is being held subject to the laws governing the referendum?
- are individuals allowed to campaign themselves for their preferred option, or must they act only through a central committee?
- if people or companies provide services for free or at a reduced price, does this count as an election expense?
Of more academic interest is the size of the "Unity Rally". Estimates of the crowd size ranged from 35,000 to 150,000. If the latter, it would have been the largest political rally in Canadian history. If the former, it would have been much smaller than many political rallies on Parliament Hill. Having lived in Montreal at the time, I can say that the truth was somewhere in the middle, but closer to the lower estimate. I attended the rally and could see that the rally at Dorchester Square was much larger than the crowd that exits football games at nearby Molson Stadium (capacity 20,202). However, it certainly was not ten times as many; as a rough guess, I would say three times as many. Therefore, it was a very large political rally by Quebec standards, but surely smaller than the 1982 labour union rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, estimated at 100,000 and billed as the largest rally in Canadian history: http://thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=A1ARTA0006373 (Claims of 150,000 attending the anti-Iraq war rally in February 2003 in Montreal are also, in my opinion, exaggerated. Having been present for these, I can say that the protest, while surprisingly large, was not quite as large as the "Unity Rally".)