Twenty-five years after the referendum on Quebec sovereignty, the former president of Telus says he is proud to have financed a major telephone solicitation operation to convince Quebecers to vote no, even though the practice has been condemned by the government. Chief Electoral Officer of Quebec (DGEQ).
“We thought it was the right thing to do for a Canadian company,” Don Lowry said, bluntly, in a rare interview on the subject.
“From inside Quebec, it could be seen as interventionism or interference. But on the other hand, if Quebec separated, we did not want to say to each other: ‘We could have done something, but we were too timid, we were afraid,’ ”explains the former president.
We didn’t want future generations to think that the rest of Canada had done nothing when part of Quebec advocated the destruction of the Canada we knew.
Don Lowry, former chairman of Telus
The AGT division, which was a major component of Telus at the time, had offered free long distance calls to residents of Alberta who wished to call a Quebecker to convince him to vote against sovereignty. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had asked the telephone companies not to meddle in the referendum in this way, but AGT still offered a refund for a five-minute call just before the vote. In a single day, the company processed 21,000 more calls than usual.
Long distance calls cost a fortune back then. “It was extremely well received because the value was enormous. Today, long distance calls are virtually free. But at the time, being able to call toll-free was not trivial. Telus was doing its part as a Canadian company, ”explains Lowry.
The idea was how can a company based in Alberta help carry a voice that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to travel?
Don Lowry, former chairman of Telus
Mr. Lowry points out that today’s means of communication allow every citizen to make their voice heard, and that no one would need to be offered free phone calls to try to convince a person in connection with a political campaign. “What was seen as radical at the time would be seen as something amateurish and ridiculous today. Things have evolved, there are more robust vehicles, ”he emphasizes.
He remains proud of this episode. “I look at all the adversity that there is in the world, one region against another, one country against another, and it’s very rare that I see an initiative from a company that amounts to above politics, ”says the former president.
“Leave us alone”
Prime Minister Jacques Parizeau denounced this wave of calls aimed at influencing the vote. “Leave us alone, let us vote,” he hammered. Mr. Parizeau had also thanked Bell, “which was correct” by refusing to participate in such an initiative.
The DGEQ then declared to the Sun of Quebec that AGT’s intervention was illegal. “We cannot offer discounts for the promotion of an option, unless they are counted in the expenses of an umbrella committee,” insisted the director, Pierre F. Côté.
But the watchdog of the referendum process was quickly confronted with a harsh reality: its jurisdiction ended at the Ottawa River. He could do nothing against companies established outside Quebec that injected money into a camp. “It is difficult to enforce a Quebec law outside the province. I can only hope that these companies follow the rules of the game, ”he said.
The DGEQ had finally tried to sue several companies that had financed the great love-in of the No camp in Montreal, but he had been dismissed by the courts.
Twenty-five years later, the DGEQ maintains its position: the rebates granted by companies to promote the No camp were violations of the law.
“The Chief Electoral Officer ruled that these expenses constituted referendum expenses and that they should therefore have been authorized and paid by the official agent of a referendum camp. In addition, the law prohibits claiming or receiving, for a referendum expense, a price different from the current price, ”says Julie St-Arnaud Drolet, spokesperson for the DGEQ.
However, the organization emphasizes that the Popular Consultations Act has not been updated for almost 20 years, and should be if there was a new referendum. It is therefore risky to advance on the provisions that would prevail today.