Once upon a time in Quebec

By Akil Alleyne on October 19, 2012

I’m not sure what to make of the recent Quebec provincial election. To be sure, the results were hardly surprising, given Jean Charest’s long-dwindling popularity. It’s a shame that the outcome appears to vindicate the anti-tuition-hike movement’s unreasonable goals and undemocratic tactics. (In truth, it does no such thing, at least not without proof that the tuition issue moved more votes than, say, the Charest government’s corruption. Alas, in politics, perception always trumps reality.) Nonetheless, since the Parti Québécois was first elected in 1976, Quebecers have consistently given each major party exactly nine years in power before trading it for the other. 

I have to admit that I heaved a sigh of relief upon learning of the outcome. With a minority government and a paltry third of the popular vote, Pauline Marois’ Péquistes will be able to do relatively little damage—for the time being, at least. Nonetheless, the times don’t exactly call for complacency on federalists’ part. Even without the “winning conditions” for another referendum anytime soon, Mme Marois can still make plenty of mischief through the jurisdictional fights she has promised to pick with Ottawa. How successfully the separatist movement will be able to milk those spats will depend on how ordinary Quebecers react to them. The history ofla belle province suggests that it’s impossible to predict what political developments will reinvigorateQuebecers’ persecution complex.

It’s worth mentioning that Marois’ strategy of pushing Quebec’s envelope with the federal government is not fundamentally new. It harkens back to a common Péquiste reaction to the Meech Lake Accord’s offer of “distinct society” status for Quebec a generation ago. In 1987, former PQ cabinet minister Claude Morin—the man who quarterbacked the 1980 referendum strategy—publicly mused that the Accord was a win-win opportunity for the independence movement. Even if Meech had been enacted, a future PQ government would have exploited its additional powers to the hilt, thus bringing Quebec incrementally closer to de factoindependence. Eventually, the federal government—the Supreme Court, if not the elected branches—wouldhave drawn the line against any further nationalist power grabs. At that point, the PQ could have turned to Quebecers and said, “See? They never really meant to give us any meaningful freedom. The English have lied to us and humiliated us yet again. This country ain’t big enough for the two of us nations.”

The question, of course, is whether the Péquistes could have made enough political hay out of such a clash to call another referendum and win it. That same question confronts us again, as we wait to see whether and how Premier Marois instigates the promised conflicts with Ottawa. If past experience is any indication, theanswer isn’t exactly comforting.

What kinds of incidents tend to cause upswings in separatist sentiment in Quebec? It has been suggested that widespread English Canadian opposition to Quebec air-traffic controllers’ demand to work in French in the mid-1970s helped elect René Lévesque’s PQ government in 1976. Given the nationalist hysteria over the patriation of the Constitution over Quebec’s objections thirty years ago, one would think that separatism would have gotten a boost in the early 1980s. Yet opinion polls from that era suggested that most Quebecers either approved of the constitutional deal or were at worst indifferent to it at the time. The patriation did nothing in the short run to stop the Lévesque government’s eventual slide into unpopularity. Nor did it create the conditions for a follow-up referendum that PQ hardliners were demanding at the time (and that they’ve never stopped demanding since).

Only in the late 1980s, in the midst of the Meech Lake controversy, with Québécois federalists in power in Quebec City and Ottawa, did support for separation begin to rise again. In 1988, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the part of Bill 101 that required the exclusive use of French on outdoor commercial signsparticularly helped separatism surge. The failure of Meech Lake in June 1990 pushed support for secession into the 60-something percent range in some polls. These levels of support ebbed and flowed throughout the 1990s,but stayed dangerously high for some time after the 1995 referendum vote. Not until the November 1998 election, when Lucien Bouchard’s Péquistes narrowly lost the popular vote to the Charest Liberals, did it become apparent that Quebecers were beginning to tire of the neverending sovereignty debate.

The Meech Lake debacle understandably convinced many federalists that any policy that antagonized Quebec nationalists would cause separatist sentiment to spike again. Quebecers’ muted reactions to the Clarity Act of 2000, however, cast serious doubt on this idea. The Act, you’ll remember, represented the Chrétien government’s attempt to get tough with the separatists after the appeasement of the Mulroney years failed. It reserved to Parliament the right to decide up front whether a proposed referendum question was clear. It also empowered Ottawa to refuse to recognize a Yes vote based on an unclear question or an insufficiently large or durable majority.

The Péquistes—and every other political party in Quebec—predictably bleated about the Clarity Act’srestrictions on Quebec’s ability to leave Confederation. By limiting Quebecers’ freedom to secede as the spirit moved them, they argued, the Act violated the principle of self-determination to which even Quebec federalistspay homage. Many of the latter feared that Quebecers would bristle at this latest federal affront to their right to control their collective destiny. Yet in the end, Quebecers did nothing of the sort. No groundswell of popular resentment of the Clarity Act occurred. No winning conditions for another referendum materialized.

After this and other developments of the early 2000s—such as Bouchard’s resignation in 2001 and the Quebec Liberals’ return to power in 2003—English Canadians could have been forgiven for thinking separatism dead. The Charest Liberals had barely taken office, however, before this overconfidence was proven wrong—dangerously wrong.

Too many Canadians today forget that the infamous sponsorship scandal did not only lay the once-mightyfederal Liberals low. It also breathed new life into the sovereignty movement at a time when many thought it was down and out. In the 2004 federal election, the Bloc Québécois came roaring back from its early-2000s doldrums to dominate Quebec’s delegation in Parliament once again. The piles of mud slung at the sensational Gomery Commission inquiry only prolonged Quebecers’ outraged reactions well into 2005. Polls at that timeactually indicated that support for sovereignty had risen above 50% for the first time since the 1990s. Only the fact of Liberal rule in Quebec City at the time spared Canada the third referendum that a PQ government would certainly have called.

Quebecers’ righteous anger over the sponsorship scandal makes no more sense in hindsight than it did back then. As many noted at the time, most of the key figures in that boondoggle were themselves Québécois; this was not some English-Canadian plot to do francophones dirt. The sponsorship program admittedly came across as an attempt to buy Quebecers’ loyalty to Canada through subsidies, distribution of Canadian flags and the like. There was nothing offensive in principle about English Canada’s attempts—however clumsy—to convince francophone Quebecers of the perks of Canadianness. Quebecers had no more reason to be irate than anyone elsewhere in the country. 

One of the few lasting lessons of Canada’s national unity troubles is that there is no telling what Quebecers will take the wrong way. Political contretemps with no meaningful national-unity dimension can be taken asaffronts to Quebec’s honor, while controversies that actually pertain to la question nationale are often shrugged off. So how is Ottawa to know what moves to avoid so as not to ruffle Quebecers’ feathers? The Supreme Court has already killed the Harper Government’s plans to establish a national securities regulator. Yet will Quebecers follow their government’s lead in rejecting Harper’s proposal for the popular election of Senators? What about his recent plan to increase the number of seats in the House of Commons held by Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia? We can certainly expect the Marois Government to oppose a plan that would dilute Quebec’s voting power in Parliament thus. Might it so antagonize ordinary Quebecers as to drive them into the referendum camp, too? No one can say.

Federalists have not wanted for overconfidence in the past; indeed, their predictions of separatism’s demise tend to be followed by its resurgence. In May 1976, Pierre Trudeau crowed that separatism was dead; six months later, the PQ won power for the first time. In April 1984, Trudeau Cabinet minister Marc Lalonde claimed that “as a political force that carries away the new generations, in my opinion, it is dead.” By the end of that decade, it was Canada that looked to be on its last legs. It is folly for federalists to rest on their laurels in dealing with the Quebec question.

Canada’s first Francophone Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, is said to have remarked about a century ago that “French Canadians have no opinions, only sentiments.” To be fair, this is no truer of the Québécois than it is of most ordinary people in most political contexts. Yet Quebecers are among the relatively few peoples whose fickle sensibilities can hold entire free societies to ransom. The dwindling number of English Canadians who are determined to keep Quebec in Confederation at all costs should beware. It ain’t over till it’s over.



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