MONTREAL — Three decades ago, their parents and grandparents swarmed by the thousands to arenas and outdoor parks to hear sovereigntist chansonniers sing about the country they dreamed of creating. But on this rainy night in Montreal, the Parti Québécois is thrilled just to have attracted about 700 young people to an old vaudeville hall for a concert-cum-political rally.
It's clear some have come more for the beer and free music – provided by Kaïn, currently one of French Quebec's hottest rock groups – than for the star attraction, PQ Leader André Boisclair. But they howl wildly in approval when Mr. Bosiclair tells them they have just as much right to their ideal of an independent Quebec as their now non-committal forebears did in their time.
“Tell them that you, too, can have dreams and that our dreams are just as big as the dreams of those who achieved the Quiet Revolution,” the PQ Leader shouts.
“Tell them that sovereignty is not the business of one generation. Because freedom is not the business of one generation.”
The results of the March 26 Quebec election will largely hinge on whether the disaffected Péquistes, who are flirting either with Mario Dumont's right-leaning Action Démocratique du Québec or the left-wing Québec Solidaire, heed Mr. Boisclair's call. That it has come to this – pleading with les souverainistes de la première heure, or sovereigntist pioneers, to return to the fold – speaks volumes about what's gone wrong during Mr. Boisclair's 16 months at the PQ helm.
Mr. Boisclair squandered a seemingly unbeatable lead over the Liberals and ADQ only a few months ago and now finds the PQ in a tight race with Mr. Dumont's party for the hearts of francophone Quebeckers. A new Globe and Mail/CTV poll shows Mr. Boisclair's efforts in recent days to corral errant sovereigntists has not been in vain, with the PQ now leading with 32 per cent of overall voter support, compared to 30 per cent for the Liberals and 26 per cent for the ADQ. But Mr. Boisclair still needs to convince more nationalist voters to come “home” to secure a PQ victory.
For Mr. Boisclair, that means undoing much of what he's done since winning the leadership in late 2005 – a victory he secured largely by signing up 40,000 new, mostly young, PQ members. Mr. Boisclair has alienated many of the same sovereigntist stalwarts on whom his political survival now depends by attempting to move the party to the centre.
After the ADQ won three of four by-elections in 2002, Mr. Boisclair, then a minister in Bernard Landry's government, declared that the PQ should be “more worried about ordinary, middle-class people who seek more freedom in their relations with the state.” That led members of the ultra-nationalist Société Saint-Jean Baptiste du Québec to call for the heads of Mr. Boisclair and two other cabinet colleagues who advocated less government intervention.
After winning the leadership, Mr. Boisclair continued to disregard the PQ's base of union organizers and diehard sovereigntists. He refused to promise to reopen stingy wage contracts imposed on public-sector employees by the sitting Liberal government and said he wouldn't become “buddy-buddy” with union leaders like past PQ leaders.
And while Mr. Boisclair abided by the party program by promising to hold a referendum on independence “as soon as possible” within a PQ mandate, he did so without apparent conviction. His attempts to distance the sovereigntist “project” from its roots in ethnicity and language – instead focusing sovereigntist arguments on environmental and economic policies – created a profound disconnect among those for whom independence made no sense if it was stripped of its cultural raison d'être.
Comparisons with Lucien Bouchard, another PQ leader whose cautious approach on sovereignty made him suspect in the eyes of les purs et durs (independence movement hard-liners), became all too apparent. Party defections and abstentions became inevitable.
“The PQ must not take power,” Andrée Ferretti, a writer and founding member of the PQ's sixties separatist precursor, le Rassemblement pour l'indépendence nationale, told Le Devoir last week. Saying she feared “the danger of holding an eventual referendum under André Boisclair's leadership,” Ms. Ferretti, 72, said a PQ victory would “make us waste another four years.”
At the same time, Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, a 62-year-old writer who is as much a giant among indépendantistes as he is a loose cannon, told Le Soleil : “I hope the PQ loses because this party has to wash its dirty laundry in-house... The PQ must recreate itself and get rid of the dead wood.”
Dead wood in French is “bois mort” which, not uncoincidentally, sounds a lot like Boisclair.
Of course, the PQ has been through this turbulence before. Hard-liners fled the party in 1984 after founder René Lévesque accepted Brian Mulroney's “ beau risque” (good risk) of renewed federalism. Many actively worked against Mr. Lévesque's successor, Pierre-Marc Johnson, who advocated “national affirmation” rather than separation, leading to the PQ's defeat in the 1985 provincial election.
Back then, however, Quebec had a two-party political system. That is no longer the case, so the defections may have more serious consequences than in the past.
“There are a lot of Péquistes who are welcoming defeat [as an opportunity] to remake the party,” said Christian Dufour, a political scientist at L'École nationale d'administration publique. “But the risk for them is that, if the ADQ performs well, it could replace the PQ altogether.”
Indeed, had Mr. Boisclair possessed Mr. Bouchard's charisma he might have been able to overcome the dissent within his party and rally voters. But his haughty and urbane demeanour has undermined his appeal not only among his own base, but also among the very suburban and rural electors he'd been trying to court by turning the PQ into a centre-right, nationalist coalition. He's been no match for Mr. Dumont, whose superb ability to connect with average voters has made the ADQ a surprise contender in this election.
“The ADQ has strong nationalist credentials,” Mr. Dufour noted. “People feel that voting ADQ doesn't mean they're renouncing sovereignty. In fact, if Quebec does become sovereign, the chance is probably greater that it happens under Mr. Dumont and not Mr. Boisclair.”
Mr. Dumont possesses unique leadership skills and if he embraced the sovereigntist cause – as he did in the 1995 referendum – he would make a better salesman than Mr. Boisclair. But Mr. Dumont currently refuses to pigeonhole himself as either a federalist or sovereigntist, preferring the catch-all term “autonomist” to describe his constitutional platform.
In recent days, Mr. Boisclair has been seizing more than ever on this apparent ambiguity to rally nationalists. In every speech, he reminds voters that the ADQ platform of repatriating certain federal powers requires a constitutional amendment – something that can be achieved only with the consent of Ottawa and seven provinces representing at least half of Canada's population. In other words, Mr. Boisclair stresses, it's a dead end.
“Quebeckers [should] understand that Mr. Dumont has turned his back on sovereignty,” Mr. Boisclair said in a speech this week before university students in Trois-Rivières. “He's so timid about it that he doesn't even dare mention on his résumé on the Internet that he was on the Yes side in 1995.”
The ADQ's surge has led retired PQ stalwarts who'd sat on their hands until now to enter the fray. Four former PQ ministers under Mr. Lévesque – Marc-André Bédard, Rodrigue Biron, Yves Duhaime and Jacques Léonard – published an open letter this week stating their “full confidence in [Mr. Boisclair's] tenacity and leadership.”
And former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, still the most influential living figure among committed separatists, turned out for a party event this week to praise Mr. Boisclair and exhort sovereigntists to close ranks around him.
Louise Harel, the PQ's longest serving female MNA who holds rank as a kind of Mother Superior to the sovereigntist flock, said in an interview that hard-liners must remember that their party has always been a coalition of urban and rural, right-wing and left-wing nationalists united in the goal of making Quebec a country. Allowing the coalition to splinter over dissatisfaction with Mr. Boisclair could backfire. “Ralph Nader must regret having prevented Al Gore's election by 100,000 votes,” said Ms. Harel, referring to the consumer activist whose candidacy paved the way for George W. Bush's victory in the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the subsequent war in Iraq.
Buoyed by his widely praised performance in Tuesday's televised leaders debate and encouraging polls since, Mr. Boisclair has appeared less stiff and has even started injecting joual – colloquial Quebec French – into his speeches. Yesterday, he stooped to using franglais when he told reporters : “ On va patiner fort et on va scorer le 26.” (We're going to skate hard and score on the 26th.) That may not put him in good stead with l'Office de la langue française, but it will help make him seem more human.
Similarly, Mr. Boisclair's refusal to apologize for referring to Asians as “slanted eyes” should be seen an attempt to counter impressions that he has been a politically correct pushover. Of all the party leaders, he's taken the most generous stand on the issue of accommodating immigrants of different religions and cultures. It has cost him dearly among nationalist voters, who prefer Mr. Dumont's hard-line take on the matter.
With the PQ at 32 per cent in the polls, Mr. Boisclair now finds himself in the political equivalent of purgatory. In 1973, the PQ garnered 30 per cent of the vote, but only six seats. In 2003, it won 33 per cent of the vote, but its seat count surged to 45. Getting to victory – or heaven – this time requires racking up wins in ridings in rural Quebec where unpredictable three-way races are under way.
Back at the Montreal concert hall, Mr. Boisclair exits the stage to a deafening rendition of the PQ's election theme song Reconstruisons Notre Québec ( Let's Rebuild our Quebec). A more comforting melody for nervous PQ strategists might have been the hit Kaïn has performed earlier. It's called Comme dans l'temps or Like it Used to Be. As in, when the PQ owned the nationalist vote.
Even early pioneers have strayed
Can Boisclair corral the wandering sovereigntists?