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Quebec Political Party Renounces Separatism, Picks Canada Over 'Imaginary' Country

“Quebecers are tired of choosing between the status quo and an imaginary country,” Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, said on Wednesday.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
September 2, 2015, 10:25pm
Photo via CAQ

A former champion of the Quebec independence movement is now vowing that he'll be pushing to move Quebec past its fractured political landscape, and give Canada a new constitution in the process.

Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), made the pronouncement on Wednesday flanked by members of his party. He promised "change, and a strong Quebec identity, but inside Canada."

Legault, as premier, would demand that the Canadian government devolve significant powers to the province, including the ability to control their own immigration policy, approve and reject energy projects, regulate language policies, and manage their own spending and taxation.

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The announcement promises to shake-up Quebec's uneven political terrain, which is often defined by questions of nationalism.

In effect, it sets up a third pillar of the Quebec electoral scene — which will see Legault's CAQ contrasted with the pro-Canadian Liberal Party, and the pro-separation Parti Quebecois (PQ).

"Quebecers are tired of choosing between the status quo and an imaginary country," said Legault at a press conference on Wednesday. "It's my role to incarnate a new nationalism."

Legault had formerly been a member of the PQ, and an ardent supporter of a sovereign Quebec, but left to start his own party in 2011.

The new policy announcement means the CAQ will not only be fighting to keep Quebec inside of Canada, but it will campaign to gain more autonomy from the Canadian government. In the process, Legault is grabbing onto the third rail of Quebec politics with both hands: signing the Canadian constitution.

Quebec's two previous referendums tested the boundaries of political and language divisions in the province.

His party was set up as the successor of the right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec, which had aggressively pursued an independent Quebec. As such, large sections of the party's support continued to come from sovereigntists.

Legault had, for years, remained cool on the idea of putting Quebec's independence to a vote. "If there was a referendum, I would vote no," he told media in 2014. "No, because it is not the right time."

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But he never committed to turning his party into an actual federalist party, either, which long frustrated his chances to make inroads with the aggressively federalist English-speaking community. His refusal to open the door to a referendum hurt his ability to win votes from the pro-separatist voters.

"I'm not defending Canadian unity, nor sovereignty. We're leaving our horizons open for the next general election," he said in the lead-up to the 2012 election, when his party made gains.

Two years later, he went into a general election singing a different tune.

"In 10 to 15 years, we'll take up that battle again," he said when asked about the sovereignty question.

In that election, Legault gained a handful of seats and put himself in close competition with the other two leaders.

Related: Canada's PM Contenders Clash Over the Economy, Terrorism, and Pipelines

The next election, slated to be held in 2018, will pit Premier Philippe Couillard against PQ leader Pierre Karl Péladeau, a charismatic and ardently sovereigntist media tycoon.

Launching a new round of constitutional talks bent on clawing back more powers for Quebec could throw Canada back into messy national negotiations that have thrice resulted in boondoggle and failure.

The Canadian constitution was patriated in 1981, only to be rejected by Quebec's sovereigntist government of the day. Attempts to get the entire country to sign onto a revised deal in 1987 also ended in disaster, with several provinces rejecting it outright.

Then, talks on the far-reaching Charlottetown Accord broke down in 1992. That accord was supposed to pass on significant powers of self-regulation to Quebec, but ultimately did not go far enough for the province's leaders, nor for the rest of the country — it was defeated by nine point margin, with the majorities of six provinces and one territory voting against the deal.

Since then, constitutional debates in Canada have become "toxic," according to columnist Susan Delacourt.

If Legault does intend to get Quebecers on board with a new constitution, he has a bare-knuckle fight ahead of him.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling