Quebecers cast a classic protest vote on Monday. They punished Premier Jean Charest's Liberals for failing to deliver promised tax cuts and better health care and other services, and crushingly repudiated André Boisclair's Parti Québécois for its obsession with yet another referendum.
Most Canadians will take comfort in Charest's narrow minority victory and the dramatic surge by Mario Dumont's conservative Action démocratique du Québec, if only because this outcome is preferable to a strong separatist showing. The PQ threat has collapsed, for now. But welcome as Quebec's realignment is, the voters' ultimate message remains a confused one, split among federalist, nationalist and separatist camps.
Yesterday Charest promised several times that his party would be "drawing lessons" from that message, without elaborating.
Who now speaks for Quebec, and how credibly?
Charest, the unapologetic federalist who has never truly connected with Quebecers? Dumont, who campaigned to break Canada in 1995 and who now envisages Quebec as an "autonomous state" within the federation?
Charest, to be sure. But his stature is diminished. The definitive answer awaits Quebec's next election, and only if that one clears the air.
Between now and then, Dumont's vague "autonomist" views will come in for tough scrutiny, as will his dubious pledges to freeze taxes, cut the debt and somehow provide better services. So will his obnoxious view that Quebec has gone too far accommodating minorities. That's all good.
In Ottawa, meanwhile, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and New Democrat Leader Jack Layton must adopt a wary approach to this new-found volatility. They should resist demands from Quebec's warring camps that might diminish Ottawa and the federation. Given that Quebecers are split, with the Liberals taking 33 per cent of the vote, the ADQ 31 and the PQ 28, Ottawa has reason to act cautiously.
Unfortunately, given Harper's decentralized vision of Canada, caution cannot be assumed. Harper has unwisely had Parliament declare Quebecers to be a nation, his budget provided $2.3 billion more for Quebec this year alone and he has promised Quebec a larger voice abroad.
The Conservatives now hope to reap the reward of extra seats in the next federal election. But beyond that, Ottawa's challenge will be to manage Quebecers' expectations as the province's parties try to position themselves as the best defender of Quebec's interests by drawing up wish lists.
Though Charest survived, two-thirds of Quebecers, including most francophones, endorsed nationalism, either in the form of Dumont's dream of an "autonomous" affiliated state or Boisclair's dream of independence. As long as his minority holds, Charest will be under pressure from his own party and from his rivals to demand more recognition for Quebec, more power and money. Far from ending the "Whither Quebec?" debate, this week's upheaval risks fanning it even more.
If that happens, Canada's federal politicians would be smart to avoid being drawn into a no-win debate about changing the Constitution, further tilting the balance of power away from Ottawa to the provinces, or cutting special provincial side deals. Any Ottawa politician who ventures down that road risks paying a high price.
When it comes, likely in a few weeks, the federal campaign in Quebec must serve as an opportunity to speak confidently to the "Canadian advantage" that two-thirds of Quebec voters, including soft nationalists, already recognize. There is ample room for debate about poverty, health care, taxes, the environment and other issues that touch people's lives.
But Canada's federal leaders should feel no obligation to get into a bidding war for the soft nationalist vote – and especially not when Quebecers themselves are struggling to decipher the message they have just sent.