Quebecers no longer have to take it or leave it

Québec 2007 - Résultats et conséquences

What an upset. No, a volcano. The first minority government since 1878. Mario Dumont's party, the Action Democratique du Quebec, surging beyond anything that was expected. The Parti Quebecois under Andre Boisclair falling back to an unimaginable third place. This campaign has changed the political landscape of Quebec. It broke the three-decades-long polarization between secessionist Parti Quebecois and federalist Quebec Liberal Party.

Since Rene Levesque's PQ first erupted on the scene in the elections of 1970, taking more votes than the governing Union Nationale and so ensuring the victory of Robert Bourassa's Liberals, the threat of secession has mobilized Quebec into two opposing camps. A litany of other parties came and went, but the final coin toss was always between Liberals and PQ.

Until this year. No one, even in January, predicted that the campaign would become a three-way race with the upsurge of Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec, or that the threat of secession would fade and lead to last night's outcome.

When he called elections on Feb. 21, Premier Jean Charest clearly anticipated playing the familiar circle game with PQ leader Andre Boisclair: "The choice is between unity and separation," he proclaimed.

The prospect of a separatist-federalist duel was promising. In June 2005, the PQ convention had adopted a radical platform for a quick referendum on a clear question proposing independence without association or partnership with Canada. All negotiations would begin only after a unilateral declaration of independence, to be held between two independent countries. The lobster pot was now party policy.

History seemed to favour secession. The federal Liberals were discredited by the sponsorship scandal; the Charest Liberals broke records for unpopularity. Support for sovereignty surged.

The PQ then chose as new leader a 39-year-old former cabinet minister who was seen as modern, stylish, urbane, apt to appeal to a new generation as the standard-bearer for independence. Shortly after Boisclair took charge in November 2005, the PQ reached 19 points above Charest's Liberals. But the expected shoot-out at the PQ corral never came about. Instead, the PQ lost its commanding role as sole flag bearer for all strains of Quebec nationalists. Suddenly, Quebec nationalists diverted into competing parties. The polarization ceased.

Several factors contributed. Stephen Harper's offer of a new "open nationalism" and his Quebec breakthrough in the 2006 elections ended a long deadlock. He displaced the federal Liberals, courted Quebec and Charest shamelessly, and rehabilitated federalism for Quebecers. Some nationalists now look to Charest to deliver tangible "gains" for Quebec, such as reversing federal intrusions into Quebec's jurisdictions, recognizing the Quebecois nation, settling the fiscal imbalance to Quebec's advantage, and promising to restrict federal spending power. It also happened that Boisclair's personality provoked resentment outside Montreal's cosmopolitan circles. The more conservative were disturbed by a prospective premier who was an avowed homosexual, had taken cocaine while a cabinet minister, whose former chief of staff Luc Doray pleaded guilty in 2001of defrauding the government to pay for purchases of alcohol and cocaine, who appeared in a gay parody of Brokeback Mountain and who advocated removing the crucifix from the National Assembly.

The very epitome of the city slicker, Boisclair's decline in the polls coincided with a grassroots revolt against cosmopolitan Montreal and "reasonable accommodations," exemplified when Herouxville adopted a municipal code against stoning women and veiling faces except at Halloween.

While Charest and Boisclair initially deprecated this nativist movement, Dumont defended it as "a cry from the heart" in defence of Quebec's identity and values. He scored with an unexpected new category of nationalists.

Dumont tapped into a conservative nationalism earlier associated with Maurice Duplessis's Union Nationale and Real Caouette's Ralliement Creditiste. He positioned his party as the alternative to federalism and separatism, ending the deadlock between Liberals and Pequistes by taking a third way called "autonomism."

His slogan: "To assert ourselves without separating." Quebec should develop its own constitution, take control of all income taxes, create a Quebec citizenship. He denounced Charest for putting off constitutional reform and Boisclair for weakening Quebec by holding another losing referendum. He repudiates the Council of the Federation because it brings Quebec down to the level of other provinces. He would negotiate "d'egal a egal" with the rest of Canada, dealing as an equal nation with the other nation of Canada. Shades of Daniel Johnson Sr.

Charest was despised for his broken promises made in 2003, to reduce income taxes by $1 billion a year, end the long queues for health care and keep the cost of child care at $5 a day -- he soon raised it to $7. A poll in February showed more than half the population wanting a change of government. But Boisclair was also unpopular and mistrusted. So Dumont filled the vacuum, surging throughout the campaign.

The PQ's plan for secession was no longer credible. Its radical repudiation of the Supreme Court, of the Clarity Act and of Canada bothered moderate nationalists. Boisclair lacked the prestige to carry it off. Even secessionists migrated to competing parties, like the ADQ on the right and left-wing Quebec Solidaire, which proposes, along with sovereignty, tax policies to soak the rich, a higher minimum wage, an extra week of paid vacations and equality of representation between men and women.

Dumont's issues, once derided, became so popular during the campaign that the new Quebec government will have to consider them seriously. They include $100 a week for each child under six not in subsidized daycare; $5,000 for a third or subsequent child; a greater role for private medicine to ensure timely treatment, and putting 25,000 people on welfare back to work. What does Quebec want? The answer has just mutated.

William Johnson is a veteran commentator on Quebec affairs. He is the author of Le Mirage and of Stephen Harper and the Future of Canada.

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