First, Quebeckers cleaned out the Bloc Québécois from Ottawa. Now, they’ve humiliated the Parti Québécois. Is there a message here?
The PQ, reeling from a night when it won just 25 per cent of the popular vote (it got 23 per cent in 1970, its first election!), now has to ask itself the hardest question of all: Is the game up?
For almost half a century, Quebec sovereignty advocates have been trying, by dint of various strategies, tactics, leaders and question phrasings, to persuade a majority of Quebeckers to support leaving Canada.
They came close once, in the 1995 referendum, and the party has intermittently won office. But the PQ now seems further than ever from its dream.
That dream will never die for the party’s pur et dur, but demographics are working against it, notably among the younger voters.
For decades, the PQ could count on younger voters to be among the keenest of sovereignty. No longer. It seems that younger Quebeckers are now more interested in the world, in Facebook, in finding a job than they are in the rainbow of sovereignty. Of all the shocks to the PQ, this drift must be the most difficult to endure.
It is too soon to be definitive, but not to speculate about what might become of the PQ. It will always have its hard-core supporters, but the party remains a fragile coalition. It might fracture on the harsh reality that Quebeckers don’t want independence, the party’s raison d’être.
Some leftist supporters might drift to Québec Solidaire, especially if “Mr. Lockout,” imperious media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau, becomes a prominent PQ player, or even leader.
More conservative Péquistes might gravitate to the Coalition Avenir Québec. The CAQ could morph into a modern version of the old Union Nationale – nationalist, decentralist in constitutional matters, free enterprise in economics, but not avowedly separatist.
In the René Lévesque era, memories of anglophone domination of the provincial economy and the predominance of English were still very fresh. There was a sense of hurt and pride that fuelled the desire to run Quebec’s affairs.
Later, the defeat of the Meech Lake accord fired up that sense of hurt and almost allowed the PQ to win the 1995 referendum, with the magical oratorical talents of Lucien Bouchard.
When Péquistes complained about federalism in this year’s campaign, they mentioned tolls on a new Champlain Bridge or the Canadian Job Grant. These run-of-the-mill issues hardly require separation to deal with.
Moreover, the big issues that have roiled Quebec in recent years – health care, student fees, resource development, the Charter of Quebec Values – were all matters Ottawa played no role in whatsoever. Canada wasn’t forcing or stopping Quebec from doing anything, which indirectly made the point that Quebec enjoys wide latitude within a decentralized federation.
One could go further and argue that Quebec already has a kind of sovereignty-association arrangement with Canada that keeps each largely out of the other’s hair without much mutual antagonism. Frustration, sometimes, but endemic antagonism, no.
Maybe Europe’s lesson has drifted across the Atlantic: that small states can be quite vulnerable in bad economic times. And for all its real or imagined faults in the minds of Quebec separatists, Canada managed to survive the recent recession better than any Western country – maybe it isn’t such an impediment to Quebec after all. Perhaps Canada is an asset – not necessarily a country to be loved, but one that provides a degree of welcome stability.
To break up a federation such as Canada would likely require serious, tangible grievances: oppression of human or linguistic rights, unfair division of national wealth, clearly discriminatory policies, an inability to get along in the same constitutional arrangement.
It could not credibly be claimed that these fundamental injustices plague Quebec within Canada, despite plenty of internal disagreements and episodic moments of tension. Listening to the PQ in recent years, it was clear that the rhetoric hadn’t changed, but the list of grievances had shrunk. And so had Quebeckers’ interest, along with it.
Quebeckers are proud of what they have accomplished, and rightly so. They are defiant in their defence of French, and rightly so. They are talented and resourceful – and politically shrewd. They understand risks, and take them only within reason. They are canoeists who choose to portage rather than enter foaming rapids.