MONTREAL - Interpreting Monday's Quebec election all comes down to whether you see the glass as two-thirds full, or two-thirds empty. For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the verdict from Quebec voters was clear: "Two-thirds of Quebecers voted against having another referendum," he said yesterday. Andre Boisclair, leader of the separatist PQ, had a different take: "Two-thirds of the National Assembly now reject the constitutional status quo."
In fact, both men were right, which means any relief felt outside Quebec about being spared a third referendum on sovereignty could be short-lived.
After seeing his party finish third and collect just 28% of the popular vote, Mr. Boisclair acknowledged yesterday that the drive toward Quebec independence has stalled, and he was at a loss to say how it could be recharged. "It is clear that we will have to review our platform," he said. "In the short term, sovereignty is impossible." Asked what he meant by short term, he replied enigmatically, "The future lasts a long time."
With sovereignty on the back burner -- or perhaps more accurately stuffed in a cryogenics freezer in hopes of future revival -- a new concept has been thrust into the spotlight: Quebec autonomy.
Mario Dumont, leader of the Action democratique du Quebec, was the unquestioned winner on Monday night, even if Jean Charest's Liberals clung to power with a minority.
Having risen from five seats and 18% of the popular vote to 41 seats and 31%, the ADQ is now the dominant party in francophone Quebec and a serious threat to win the next election. And it is Mr. Dumont's party, combined with the PQ, that form Mr. Boisclair's two-thirds that reject the status quo.
Mr. Dumont drew a lot of attention during the campaign for his promise not to facilitate another referendum. Less attention was paid to his platform to assert Quebec's autonomy, elements of which might surprise Canadians.
Adopted by the party in 2004, the policy is a strongly nationalist document that calls for Quebec to adopt its own constitution, create its own citizenship and even disregard some federal laws when they are judged to be infringing on areas of provincial jurisdiction.
"Our first fidelity, our passion and our loyalty are toward Quebec," the platform says. It adds: "The development of Quebec as a distinct nation flows naturally from an increase in our autonomy." Canadians outside Quebec are considered "privileged partners," not countrymen. It proposes having the province's name officially changed to the "Autonomist State of Quebec."
The document is heavy on rhetoric about rejecting "submission to Canada" and affirming Quebec's "sovereign rights."
The Canada Health Act, which sets national standards for healthcare delivery and limits private sector involvement, is considered an unacceptable intrusion.
If federal environmental law were to block construction of Quebec hydroelectric dams, an ADQ government would reserve the right to ignore the federal government if it were satisfied the project met Quebec environmental standards.
Speaking to reporters in Quebec City yesterday, Mr. Dumont said Canadians should not label him a federalist. "I hope that is not how they perceive me. That would be a mistake," he said.
He said Monday's results show many Quebecers have been won over by the concept of autonomy, and he plans to deliver.
"Talking about the future of Quebec has been for years, for decades, a matter of dividing people between the 'Yes' and the 'No.' Uniting people behind an option that is modern, yes, I think it is a position of strength," he said.
All the positions that we will take, all the proposals we will make, will be based on that philosophy that we want Quebec to gain more autonomy."
Guy Laforest, a professor of political science at Universite Laval and former president of the ADQ, said the electionmarks the beginning of a new political phase in Canada.
"The idea of Canada as one nation, Dumont does not buy that dream. Dumont is not a one-nation Canada guy. Dumont is a Quebec nationalist," Mr. Laforest said. "The result of yesterday is not that Quebec is going out. Quebec is not going anywhere. Quebec is staying in but will act as a nation, will demand autonomy and will act autonomously."
Mr. Dumont has said he wants limits on federal spending power written into the Constitution, but Mr. Laforest saidmuch of the ADQ program does not require anyone's approval.
"Quebec does not have to beg for permission to do this. It can do it alone," he said.
The experience of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord has soured people such as Mr. Dumont on the idea of negotiating improvements.
"These are the sons of Meech Lake, which was a failure of negotiation," he said. "It is not a generation that will beg for recognition."
During the campaign, Mr. Dumont said he would never join with the PQ in organizing another sovereignty referendum. Now Mr. Dumont is in the driver's seat, and Mr. Boisclair yesterday did not rule out joining the ADQ fight for greater autonomy. "I'll do whatever is in the best interests of Quebec," he said.
Mr. Dumont said he would welcome PQ support. "I would like to rally unanimity on autonomy in the National Assembly," he said.
Autonomy thrust into spotlight
'Sovereignty impossible': ADQ policy calls for Quebec to adopt own constitution