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It’s Too Soon to Write Off Quebec Independence

After the Parti Québécois was dealt a crushing defeat last week, many in Quebec are rejoicing. But with 7.6 percent unemployment, a provincial debt somewhere around $175 billion, and a whole host of other problems, where does this leave us? Still...

by Patrick Lejtenyi
Apr 10 2014, 5:05pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Now that the Parti Québécois has been dealt a crushing defeat, its leader fallen on her sword, and the party faithful wondering just how the fuck it all went so terribly, terribly wrong, the country’s A-list pundits are tripping over themselves to declare that the idea of Quebec sovereignty—the fancy word we use here for independence—is dead. Kaput. Toast.

Maybe. Support for it is certainly low, and the idea of another referendum has rarely been less popular.

But I’d argue that it’s probably too soon to be dancing on the movement’s grave. Based on conversations I’ve had not just with political eggheads but with actual voting humans, there’s a case to be made that while the desire for a referendum is as low as it’s been in recent memory, the desire for an independent Quebec is still burning, at least among a healthy minority of francophones.

But with unemployment a chronic 7.6 percent, and a provincial debt hovering somewhere around $175 billion and a whole host of other problems that include an underfunded university system, cash-starved hospitals, and some of the worst goddamn roads this side of the developed world, only about a third of the population was ready to back a party that was even considering a push for independence (I include the left-wing and independence-minded Quebec Solidaire here, which scooped up three seats and about eight percent of the popular vote on Monday. More on them later).

On the other hand, that the number could, with a stretch, go up to over half the electorate if you include the right-wing, pro-business Coalition Avenir Québec, which is led by former PQ member Francois Legault. He’s what’s called a soft nationalist though, and if elected would not—definitely would not—push for referendum. At least for now.

So where does that leave us? We now have a Liberal government majority—the same one that was turfed out just a year and a half ago under a sickening cloud of corruption and sleaze and months of relentless student protests.

But according to a bunch of voters I spoke to, this election was less about being pro-Liberal than it was about being anti-PQ and anti-Pauline. And, of course, anti-Pierre-Karl Péladeau. A cavalcade of people really fucking hate that guy, especially unions and urban progressives (a fact that somehow didn’t stop him from being elected in his riding north of Montreal). PQ support dropped dramatically shortly after the multi-millionaire, union-busting media baron made that weird, awkward and troublingly sincere pro-independence air-punch as he announced his candidacy.

And much of it shifted to Quebec Solidaire. Still a distant fourth party with only three (of 125) seats in the National Assembly, it did cost the PQ some support, enough to split the vote in a few key ridings, including one held by the PQ in downtown Montreal. In others, the PQ bled from the left, with disgusted progressives who would normally vote for them plumping for QS instead.

Francoise David, the party’s co-spokesperson (not “leader,” because the left), was the only one of the four main party leaders who openly and continually spoke about the sovereignty issue—unabashedly, relentlessly, proudly. Her party’s emphasis on social democracy and wealth redistribution struck a chord with disgruntled progressive péquistes—a by-product of l’effet PKP.

The PQ’s loss by taking such a risky gamble was clearly QS’s gain, even if the province-wide reverberations in the short term were slight. In the long-term though, QS is increasingly appealing to a core group of erstwhile PQ supporters who feel better voting for them than they do for a party that would recruit people like Pierre-Karl Péladeau.

The PKP move further hammered home the perception that the PQ is turning its back on the ideals of its founder, the late René Lévesque, whom separatists today regard much in the same way as Republicans regard Ronald Reagan—with reverence and awe. Lévesque’s left-wing credentials were impeccable; the PQ’s far from it. One analyst I spoke to recently said, “Quebec Solidaire is the true heir of René Lévesque.”

There’s all kinds of talk now that the PQ has to re-invent itself. The question is, how? The day after the election, three men were brought up as likely candidates to succeed Marois in leading the PQ from the wilderness. One is Bernard Drainville, the architect of Quebec’s secularism charter. Another is Jean-Francois Lisée, the former Minister for Montreal, an ex-journalist who is fluently bilingual, makes friendly noises towards the province’s Anglophones (he told me once that they are a “distinct society” in Quebec, which is a loaded term in these parts) and is a hard-core sovereignist. The third is old PKP.

It’s still too early to say that sovereignty is dead, or is even on life support. What it is suffering from is a severe case of fuck-off-for-now. People are either too worried about the economy to take a risk on the idea, or are realizing that being part of Canada is actually a pretty sweet deal.

There is also a generation gap. Some of those A-list pundits are saying that sovereignty is a “single-generation movement,” that the PQ is aging faster than voters. And with French being accepted as the, uh, lingua franca of the province by anglophones and immigrants more or less without question, and with young francophones increasingly looking beyond their native province’s borders for opportunities, there is less of a passion driving them to protect their identity. In large part, the PQ won the battle to save and promote French in Quebec—just don’t tell them that, because they’ll say Montreal is crawling with bilingualism. Seriously. “Creeping bilingualism” in Montreal is a bona fide bad thing for the PQ.

So the sovereignty fight is increasingly being fought by grey-hairs. The movement may be older, more tired and perhaps more desperate.

But it still has some life left in it yet.

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