Let's say you're a Quebec sovereigntist. You know that since Quebec is a democracy, there is only one way the province could become a sovereign country: through a referendum. So wouldn't you want a referendum to be held as soon as possible? This is certainly what elementary logic dictates. Yet, a vast majority of Quebeckers - even those who say they are sovereigntists - recoil from the idea.
These days, surveys show about 45 per cent of Quebeckers are in favour of sovereignty. But when polled on whether they want a referendum on the issue, most Quebeckers say they don't want one. (This trend has been consistent for decades: If it had been left to the people, there would have been no referendums in Quebec.)
This is why Jean Charest's Liberals systematically use the word "referendum" in their attacks against the Parti Québécois. This is the real bogeyman, while the vague concept of sovereignty has a relatively positive aura.
So, in the next election, the main theme of the provincial Liberals will be to paint the PQ as the party that wants to drive Quebeckers into another divisive referendum campaign.
Why do Quebeckers hate the idea of having another referendum? Sure, it is in itself a harrowing experience, one that divides friends and families, and Quebeckers, a rather peaceful people, don't like this kind of polarization. But if 45 per cent of Quebeckers really wanted sovereignty, there would be as high a proportion of people in favour of a referendum.
Wanting sovereignty while refusing a referendum is like wanting to get to the other side of the river but refusing to cross the bridge. The only conclusion one can draw from this contradiction is that the desire to get to the other side of the river is very weak - a pleasant dream rather than a firm intention.
This widespread refusal of a referendum is the real test of the sovereigntists' strength, and the reason why English Canada and Quebec federalists should stop the ongoing hysteria of Quebec being on the verge of sovereignty. A vote on this issue is a distant possibility - nothing more.
First, the Charest Liberals might very well get re-elected. But even if the PQ wins the next election, it is far from certain that it will hold a referendum. Several people close to PQ leader André Boisclair are quite blunt about this in private conversations: "Come on," one of his advisers told a friend, "you damn well know there won't be a referendum."
Martine Tremblay, a committed sovereigntist and former chief of staff to PQ icon René Lévesque, doesn't hide her skepticism: "A large number of Quebeckers refuse to take the road to sovereignty even though they have sympathy for the idea, because they reject the prospect of a destabilizing breakup with the rest of Canada. For them, the risk is too high, and it's just not worth it," she recently wrote in La Presse. Also, she doesn't rule out that in future a PQ government may have to opt for some kind of renewed federalism rather than secession.
What is certain is that sovereigntist leaders are not suicidal and they will not risk a third referendum loss if the polls are not promising. They could even postpone the referendum indefinitely without going against their program that states a PQ government "should call a referendum as soon as possible during the first mandate."
As soon as possible. . . . Haven't we all heard that phrase before? For instance, from the plumber you need right away? "I'll get there, ma'am, as soon as possible." This means he'll do his best, but can't guarantee anything. Maybe he'll come tomorrow, or next week, unless he forgets and other more important emergencies crop up. The emphasis here is on the word "possible." Beyond the rhetoric, it means a referendum will be held when and if it is possible. Until then, everybody should relax.