Canada's four-decades-long struggle with Quebec independence has been marked by inventive wordplay. The separatist side, in particular, has consistently used euphemisms to conceal the radical nature of its project. Now, the Parti Quebecois is at it again. The same party that once gave us the term "sovereignty association" has expunged the word "referendum" from its platform for the duration of the current Quebec provincial election, in favour of the more ambiguous "public consultation."
What seemed a year ago like a sure thing -- a victory by the PQ over the provincial Liberals -- now appears unlikely. Andre Boisclair, the PQ's new leader, has come across to many voters as rash, indolent and thin-skinned. In just 16 short months, he has managed to fritter away a lead of more than 20 points in the polls.
On top of that, most Quebec voters want nothing to do with another referendum on independence, at least for now. Last week, two-thirds told CROP Research they want no vote during the first term of any PQ government. On the other hand, PQ hardliners are adamant: A third referendum on whether to make Quebec a nation (the earlier two going to the No side in 1980 and 1995), must be held after a PQ win.
All of which has left the unpopular Mr. Boisclair with a big circle to square. Hence his wordplay: Tell skeptical voters there will be no referendum, only "consultations" in hopes they will think of, say, legislative hearings. Meanwhile, a nudge and wink to core supporters that "consultation" really means binding referendum.
On the weekend, Mr. Boisclair as much as confessed to his two-faced approach. "There is no ambiguity whatsoever on the issue of sovereignty," he told reporters. "Quebecers know who we are." And one of his highest profile candidates, Marc Laviolette, went further, "Black cat, white cat -- the important thing is that he catches the mouse." Gullible Quebec voters, presumably, being the mice.
This, of course, is not the first time separatists have tried to finesse their way out of a jam (or out of the country) with semantics. But admittedly, the federalists have sometimes done the same. Witness "special status" for Quebec in the constitution, which became "distinct society," then "unique character," "asymmetric federalism" and finally "a nation within a united Canada."
Yet over the years, it has been the PQ that has done the most spinning. Separatism has morphed into independence, then nationalism and sovereignty association. And sovereignty association itself has had several meanings, from the promise of a common market and currency with Canada had the 1980 referendum succeeded, to "a new economic and political partnership" in 1995, to Mr. Boisclair's recent assurances that even if his party should win Quebec's March 26 election, and even if it could then convince Quebec voters to embrace sovereignty, the transfers and equalization payments from Ottawa would keep on flowing in -- Quebec as independent state and "have-not" province simultaneously.
We share Liberal Premier Jean Charest's confidence that Quebec voters are too smart to be duped by the PQ's latest subterfuge. They will see it for the political wolf-in-sheep's-clothing it is -- a crass attempt to win government by claiming to be cool to the idea of independence, yet with the full intention of subjecting Quebec and Canada to a pointless and disruptive referendum once office has been captured.