Separatism isn't dead

Crise de leadership au PQ

Since taking over the leadership of the separatist Parti Quebecois 15 months ago, Andre Boisclair has presided over a 20-point drop in the provincial party's popular support. In response, many chuffed federalists have been tempted to declare sovereignty dead. As recent history shows, that is a mistake.
To be sure, Mr. Boisclair's plummet has been stunning. When the gay, formerly cocaine snorting social-democrat was selected to lead his party in November, 2005, the PQ were at 52% in polls, higher than they'd been at any time since their close loss in the 1995 sovereignty referendum. But thanks in part to Mr. Boisclair's lacklustre performance and a series of gaffes, this week the governing Liberals passed him in popularity for the first time since the province's last general election in 2003.
Mr. Boisclair was seen as a charming novelty across the country when he was selected leader. Yet he has been far from engaging in office. He is widely viewed as indolent, working short hours and skipping many of the events customarily expected of leaders. His participation in a tasteless video spoof of the gay cowboy film Brokeback Mountain alienated PQ supporters, many of whom are traditionally minded blue-collar workers, rural residents and Catholics. He compounded this indiscretion by saying he saw no reason why there should be a crucifix in Quebec's National Assembly.
As a result, several high-profile candidates have reconsidered their interest in running for the PQ in the provincial election expected this spring. Even some former Cabinet ministers and prominent separatist intellectuals are calling for the PQ leader's head.
But federalists shouldn't be too gleeful about the PQ's misfortunes. Support for separartism may wane now and then. But it inevitably waxes, too.
When Quebec voters roundly defeated the separatists in the 1980 referendum, separatism was declared dead. Again in 1985, after Rene Levesque resigned as PQ leader and the Liberals under Robert Bourassa won a majority, the sovereigntist threat was thought to have passed. With the defeat of the 1995 referendum, the same claims were made. And they were repeated yet again when the Quebec Liberals turned the PQ out of power in 2003.
But each of these was a political defeat, not an ideological one, just as Mr. Boisclair's current problems are essentially political in nature. It would therefore be unwise to read too much into this week's polling numbers.
Much credit for diffusing separatist sentiment, especially among swing voters in Quebec, must go to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his many initiatives to recognize Quebec's unique place in Canada (of which his Quebecois-as-nation resolution is only the most famous). It would now be difficult for any PQ leader -- even one far more competent than Mr. Boisclair -- to find 50%, or even 40% backing for independence.
Still, it would be wrong to see Mr. Boisclair's personal political misfortunes as a sign separatism is a spent force. Canadian politicians and Quebec federalists alike must not relax in their campaign to keep Canada part of Confederation.

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