Autonomy: Saving face in Quebec

Le mouvement souverainiste est mort - Lysiâne...

The new political year is only two weeks away, and one can easily predict that in Quebec, 2007-2008 will mark a radical shift from the past three decades. Barring the unexpected, this will be the first year that the quest for sovereignty will not influence the political agenda.
The sovereigntist movement is dead, at least as a major political force, and the first to admit it are the sovereigntists themselves, including Pauline Marois, the new leader of the Parti Québécois. The PQ remains a sovereigntist party on paper, but will not call for a referendum and will stop its aggressive promotion of the sovereigntist option.
The reason for this lies in the results of the last election, which the PQ lost miserably: For the first time since 1970, it has third-party status. If it wants to escape the fate of the NDP, Canada's eternal third party, it must go through this painful revision.
A flurry of surveys from three polling firms published at the end of June was unequivocal. Support for sovereignty is down to 32 per cent; 68 per cent of Quebeckers - including 48 per cent of PQ voters - want the PQ to relinquish its sovereigntist option; 83 per cent of Quebeckers think Quebec will still be part of Canada in 10 years.
Moreover, 85.7 per cent of Quebeckers say they are "proud to be Canadians." The proportion is only slightly lower than those who say they are "proud to be Quebeckers" (93.3 per cent). Interestingly, there is little difference in the degree of attachment of French-speaking and English-speaking Quebeckers toward both Quebec and Canada. The difference is in the emphasis: Half the francophones are "proud" (rather than "very proud") to be Canadians; when they travel abroad, a slight majority of francophones identify themselves as "Quebeckers" rather than "Canadians." Of course, their attachment to Quebec is more visceral, one proof being that Quebec's "national" holiday, on June 24, is always much more celebrated than July 1.
Still, the identification of a large majority of Quebeckers to Canada remains a given. It is - actually, it has always been - the major obstacle for sovereigntists: Who would want to leave the country to which one is proud to belong?
The only factor that allowed the sovereigntist option to survive for so many years is that sovereigntist leaders always promised sovereignty would come hand in hand with a strong association or even, as in the 1995 referendum, a close political partnership with the rest of Canada. People were led to believe there would be no break-up, no separation, that life would go on as usual, with a stronger Quebec in a united Canada.
The Clarity Law now requires that a referendum question must deal with nothing except sovereignty, and the PQ followed suit in its own program. This development spells the end of a story based on an illusion.
Canadians would be wrong to believe that the sharp decline of the sovereigntist movement means Quebeckers don't feel distinct. What replaced the impossible dream of sovereignty is the desire of a greater autonomy for the province: Quebec would have more powers than other provinces - in other words, distinct status.
This idea is embodied by Mario Dumont, the popular young leader of the Action démocratique du Québec, which replaced the PQ as the Official Opposition. This is an impossible dream, too: It's unthinkable that Quebec would be granted special privileges in the present context, especially now that it is deprived of any bargaining power. Without the "threat" of a strong and aggressive sovereigntist movement, it is doubtful the rest of Canada would be willing to grant Quebec special status.
Yet, this quest for "autonomy" serves a psychological purpose. It allows Quebeckers to bury the sovereigntist dream with dignity, without looking like they're surrendering. Saving face is often a necessity in politics.

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