Sovereigntists in search of identity

Pacte électoral - gauche et souverainiste

Quebec is a politically volatile place these days. There seems to be a general restlessness within the body politic, but what’s even more significant is the stir among Quebec sovereigntists.
Just a few months ago, the movement was enjoying a rosy scenario. A popular Gilles Duceppe was at the helm of the Bloc Québécois, while support for the Parti Québécois was skyrocketing and its leader, Pauline Marois, enjoying a historic approval rating among party members.
Today, the Bloc is a spent force after being decimated in the federal election, and the PQ’s internal turmoil is common knowledge. The defection of four sovereigntist stalwarts to sit as independents this week may have been due to their opposition to the party line imposed over the Quebec City arena bill, but the rancour that has been unleashed suggests the underlying causes run much deeper.
For example, the leadership of Ms. Marois, who is accused of being domineering. While she is one of the most capable politicians in Quebec, she is generally unloved by the sovereignty movement. For her, the main event is winning the next election. As she said recently to the Montreal Board of Trade, her aim as premier would be “to take control of all the issues that are Quebec’s jurisdiction, to get more means and powers from Ottawa since we are a nation” – and eventually, maybe, another referendum. Ms. Marois is reading the tea leaves of public opinion – lethargic toward the sovereignty project – and trying to muster an electoral coalition that can encompass more francophone federalists and nationalists.
Some argue that the willingness of the Bloc and PQ to “water down” the commitment to sovereignty is at the root of their implosion. For the “independent sovereigntists” who left the PQ, and many more within the party and throughout the province, the endgame has always been Quebec’s independence. Just as the initial mutterings about Mr. Duceppe came from committed indépendentistes impatient with the Bloc’s strategy, the public criticisms of Ms. Marois have been stirred by the sovereigntist baseline of the party.
This is an enduring rift – one that led Jacques Parizeau and several others to slam the door on the PQ in the 1980s, when the “beau risque” of rapprochement with Canada led to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords and the 1995 referendum. Since Mr. Parizeau’s resignation shortly after that failure, no PQ leader has been willing to sacrifice power – real or potential – for a third attempt at sovereignty.
Like the hapless protagonists searching for an ideal ending in Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, it seems Quebec’s sovereigntists are searching for an alternative scenario. The movement itself is not about to expire, but its existing political vehicles are being called into question. This makes the political landscape even more difficult to survey in the foreseeable future, as Quebeckers attracted by some aspects of the sovereignty message may be ready to embrace a different political voice. It may be a more radical voice on the left – witness the creation of Québec Solidaire and its outspoken lone MNA, Amir Khadir. Or it may be a more moderate voice to the centre-right – such as the much talked-about efforts of former PQ cabinet minister François Legault to build a new nationalist coalition.
It remains to be seen whether the situation in Quebec leads to as much confusion and chaos as the struggle between illusion and realism in Pirandello’s tragicomedy, or whether the sovereignty movement can renew itself in its quest for the promised land.
Antonia Maioni is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

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