The storm clouds are threatening again. A Quebec election is looming and polls point to a likely Parti Québécois (PQ) majority. Dinner table talk is about politics. Montreal’s Jewish community, and other minority groups, are bracing themselves for another round of feeling unwanted.
Of course, Quebec has been through this before, and I had the professional privilege to be close to it. I covered René Lévesque’s sweep to power in 1976 and I covered both referendum campaigns in 1980 and 1995. Having a government in power that wants to pull Quebec out of Canada may not be a new phenomenon, but each time is different, with its own unique set of circumstances and challenges.
This round coming does not auger well – which is a fancy way of saying it doesn’t smell very good. How could it smell good when the rest of Canada has no appetite for another round of Quebec’s threats to separate? It is not just fatigue with the subject; it is also that Canada has changed dramatically since the huge flag-waving Canadian unity demonstration on the eve of the 1995 referendum. A lot has changed in 19 years.
This is not to say Canadians are not proud of their country. Just look at the glory celebrated during the recent Winter Olympics. Canadian unity and identity are now so solidly rooted, there could be resentment towards those who challenge the virtues of being part of Canada. For Quebecers who wish to renew the independence debate, there will likely be many in the rest of the country saying that to do so would be at their own peril.
There are other issues that preoccupy Canadians: the economy, including concerns about high unemployment among young Canadians, household debt, and taxes; health care; and our crumbling infrastructure. The Quebec debate will be an unwelcome distraction from such concerns.
And, if many Canadians are starting not to care whether Quebec stays or goes, the next question to ask is where is the national leadership? Who will be the best political champion for a united Canada?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have never had a Quebec base on which to build. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have been unelectable in French Quebec since his father left politics in 1984. Thomas Mulcair’s NDP have the numbers today – but, until proven otherwise, those seats belong to the late Jack Layton.
Current polling indicates the Liberals have the best chance in Quebec – but let’s also remember the next federal election is more than a year-and-a-half away, while the Quebec election could be next month.
With polling trends indicating a sizable PQ majority, Premier Pauline Marois will have the breathing space she needs to pass the Charter of Quebec Values, reinforce the language law and do all the promotion she wants that Quebec would be better off as an independent country. Her majority government will be actively entrenched by the time the federal election comes around. National unity will become an issue in the federal campaign. Marois will engineer it that way.
It could be a huge risk for federal leaders to take on the national unity mantle. Not because of the reaction in Quebec, but rather because of the potential backlash in the rest of country. What a tricky time it will be for a federal election with the PQ leading the orchestra in Quebec City.
There is something about the people in the present PQ minority government that speaks volumes about how they will govern as a majority. They look for confrontation rather than compromise. They consider compromise to be weakness. A majority will give them a chance to flex their muscles and, as the expression goes, take no prisoners in the unity debate.
In his day, Lévesque poked and prodded to see what he could get – as if he was actually afraid of going for the full-fledged Quebec independence that motivates and energizes Marois and her group. The rules of the game are about to change in dramatic fashion and, somehow, you can’t help but be saddened by it.
We are about to embark on a long voyage of sustained negativity. There is nothing the Marois government will want to do more than turn off the rest of Canada on Quebec.
The script is written, the curtain is about to rise.