The Quebec election campaign seems to have lurched into a time warp over the past two days, with leaders for the three major parties, in a flashback to 1995, arguing over the spectre of partition.
A day after Quebec Premier Jean Charest referenced the long dormant idea of splitting up Quebec if Quebecers one day vote to split from Canada, the province is now wrestling with its old demons.
Christian Dufour, a political scientist at Quebec's Ecole nationale d'administration publique, said he doesn't get it.
He notes the old polarizing debate certainly wasn't the question du jour for Quebecers -- at least not before this week.
"It's so 1995," said Prof. Dufour. "Going back in time and evoking the fear of independence and talking about partition--it's just surreal."
Even the Parti Quebecois, a party founded on the dream of sovereignty, has been shying away from referendum talk on the campaign trail, with leader Andre Boisclair preferring the euphemism "public consultation" when the issue has inevitably popped up.
But in the middle of a news conference on Tuesday, nearing themidway mark in the provincial election campaign, Mr. Charest uttered the P-word, in reference to a question about a decade-old quote from Stephen Harper about the possibility of partition.
What Mr. Charest actually said -- in English -- was: "I don't believe Quebec would be indivisible" in the event of a vote for sovereignty.
Three hours later, his team issued a communique saying the Premier had misspoken and that what he had meant to say was that Quebec would be indivisible under such circumstances.
His competitors for the premier's job had already gleefully seized on his comments. However, it seemed like it was destined to be written off as a blooper by a road-weary leader after weeks crisscrossing the province.
But then yesterday, standing at the summit of ski station Le Massif, in the Charlevoix, Mr. Charest said the election of a PQ government would put the partition question back on the table the day after the election.
"I'm happy you're asking the question [about partition] and I hope you keep asking it every day until March 26," he told reporters. "Ask the question. Quebecers absolutely have to know the choice that they are facing March 26. Mr. Boisclair and [Action democratique du Quebec leader] Mr. Dumont are pushing that debate because the day after March 26, they want us to have a good debate on all those things."
Mr. Charest said that while he personally believes in the indivisibility of Quebec, he could not guarantee that others would not advocate for partition in the event of a yes vote.
Then, asked whether he would stand for the federal government calling into question the territorial integrity of Quebec, Mr. Charest responded: "I think, and I know, that the question will be asked, but it is all hypothetical."
It was an unexpected statement from a Quebec Premier and Liberal leader -- none of whom has ever failed to defend Quebec as an indivisible nation, let alone mused off-handedly about the possibility of its breakup.
And with that, Mr. Boisclair, and Mr. Dumont were off. "Jean Charest needs to tell the truth," Mr. Boisclair said, calling partition the "federalism of bullying."
He suggested Mr. Charest must be "so embarrassed by his record and so afraid to talk about it that he's throwing out a big distraction that has nothing to do with the election campaign under way."
Mr. Dumont -- who is surging in the polls and whom some believe has a chance of ousting the PQ as official opposition, though not unseating the government --also demanded clarification.
"The Premier is the guardian of our national territory," he said. "As guardian of our territory, Jean Charest went to play yesterday in a zone where no premier should go and should not get caught making contradictory statements."
Prof. Dufour called Mr. Charest's remarks "bizarre" given that his record on the federal- provincial relations front over the past four years is not too shabby. "It's actually pretty good," the political scientist said.
Quebec's political pundits have also been spilling much ink and eating up much air time wondering whether the "lapse," as it has already been dubbed, was truly a lapse or some kind of misguided trial balloon.
"We'll be saving this somewhere on a hard disk," wrote La Presse columnist Michel C. Auger on his blog. "Because for the Quebec Premier to raise the spectre of a partitioned Quebec ... would be an incredible irresponsibility."
Prof. Dufour is convinced whatever strategy Mr. Charest has employed--because this has long since ceased to be a gaffe -- will only backfire.
It is common for a Quebec Liberal leader to want to remind voters that the PQ stands for separation. But Mr. Charest may actually awaken dormant sovereigntist sentiment with his fear-mongering, he said. "It's an extremely touchy issue--for federalists and sovereigntists."
Use of 'p-word' sends Quebec into uproar
Talk of partitioned province evokes 10-year-old debate