For the first time in a generation, no party in a position to form the next Quebec government will call a referendum on sovereignty during its mandate. This may seem like progress, but it’s only superficial.
The sovereignist project remains a non-starter for most Quebecers. About 70 per cent of young Quebecers, according to one recent estimate, identify as federalists, but the Coalition Avenir Québec seems to be signalling that, if elected on Oct. 1 to form the next government, it will subvert Canadian federalism, not unlike the sovereignist Parti Québécois.
Over the past couple of years, CAQ Leader François Legault has rebranded his party specifically to court hard nationalists, many of whom are disaffected sovereignists; a departure from the party’s founding narrative.
“New Quebec political party makes statement with logo,” read one headline from 2011. The multicoloured logo was true to what the CAQ was then: a coalition of Quebecers from various political factions, brought together with some haste and a sense of urgency, to offer an alternative to what was described as a corrupt Liberal-Parti Québécois duopoly.
In keeping with the rainbow theme, the party’s choice of president of that era, Dominique Anglade, even reflected a certain commitment to diversity. Anglade would end up leaving the party, though, citing objections to cultural policies, to later become the Liberal vice-premier.
Competing directly with Philippe Couillard’s Liberals, themselves somewhat reform-oriented and stacked with high-profile candidates like Anglade and Gaétan Barrette, would prove more difficult during the 2014 election. Legault would have to choose a softer target.
In 2015, the CAQ dropped the rainbow logo, along with the pretence that it had anything to offer to Quebecers without nationalist leanings. The changes seemed to signal that the party was becoming PQ-lite: All the Québécois pride without the economic devastation of outright independence.
It took Legault years before he said the words “never” and “referendum” in the same sentence but, to his credit, he finally has: “A CAQ government will never hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty.”
At the risk of shifting political goal posts on Legault, whether Quebec is led by a CAQ promoting PQ-style economic and cultural nationalism, or the actual PQ without the spectre of a referendum, the essential result vis-à-vis Canada seems awfully similar.
Legault is willing to override the Constitution to advance his agenda, particularly on fundamental civil rights issues. He has mused about using the notwithstanding clause to impose a secular dress code on government employees who wield state authority, toughen already unconstitutional (in spirit) language laws, and even take measures to force graduating medical students to remain in Quebec.
Legault can’t have his Canada and eat it, too.
Quebec premiers aren’t expected to cheerlead for the True North Strong and Free, but the least we should ask of a non-sovereignist premier is to avoid undermining the federation.
Inevitable Supreme Court losses on human rights issues would produce one of two possible scenarios for a hypothetical Premier Legault: accepting the unconstitutionality of something like a secular civil service dress code, making the entire decade-long debate he helped perpetuate for naught; or, more plausibly, invoking the controversial clause, promoting an agenda that is antithetical to Canadian values and doing the bidding of sovereignists.
Say what you will of the PQ’s history of federal antagonism, but at least they are consistent in their position that Quebec values are hopelessly incompatible with Canada’s, and that an independent Quebec’s high court would behave differently.
Under the CAQ, there would be plenty of what’s been described as “péquisteries,” manifestations of the PQ’s performative nationalism. It seems to have become a de facto sovereignist movement with no payoff for sovereignists. If a potential Premier Legault can’t advance sovereignty or federalism, it’s a mystery what he will offer either nation.
Dan Delmar is a political commentator and managing partner, public relations with TNKR Media.