There are numerous takeaways from the Quebec election held October 1. History was made in many ways and the repercussions will once again bring the “Quebec question” back into play after almost two decades of almost no action at all.
After being in power for 13 of the past 15 years the Liberal Party of Quebec was soundly rejected by francophone Quebec. The Liberals received their smallest share of the popular vote since Confederation. Take away the anglophone and allophone vote and the Liberals are left gasping for air.
During the Liberals’ long reign there were many voices that said Quebec was finished with the independence debate and over the past couple of years a boom in Montreal real estate served as a barometer for political and social peace in Quebec.
Imagine! Even the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) thought their sacred raison d’être of independence was so far in the back of Quebecers minds, their leadership pledged not to know about sovereignty during the campaign. What a fundamental mistake that was. The PQ lost in ridings they’d held for almost 50 years. The Liberals and the PQ, the two traditional parties, both came out of the election beaten to a pulp.
“Traditional,” “conventional” and “business as usual” are terms now being consistently challenged in democracies worldwide. The rejection of political elites and their thinking is happening at breakneck speed. The yearning for change makes every incumbent government vulnerable.
By all reasonable measures the Quebec Liberal Party’s last four-year mandate was a good, if not a perfect, four years. Public finances were put in good order, and there were no scandals. The corruption of previous Liberal governments seemed to have been cleaned up. Putting finances in order meant reorganizing the health care system, which surely cost the Liberals some support, but it wasn’t the only reason for their dismal showing.
The overpowering compulsion to reject the traditional and go with something new is what happened and the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) is the new political party that swept away the Liberals in francophone Quebec. François Legault, the new premier, was finance minister in a previous PQ government. Other formerly strong proponents of Quebec sovereignty are part of his government and one could ask if zebras ever lose their stripes. Only time will tell, but we do know the quiet, federalist, Liberal days are over.
The even more stunning election result was the astounding breakthrough of the relatively new pro-sovereignty party in Quebec which did to the PQ what the CAQ did to the Liberals. Quebec Solidaire won 10 ridings spread over several regions of Quebec and got 16 per cent of the popular vote. Those they elected are mostly young firebrands who are deeply socialist and deeply separatist.
Exactly 50 years after its founding, the PQ finds itself on the floor looking up at the upstart party to its left. For a half-century, the PQ tried to slowly bring Quebecers around to believe an independent Quebec was best for them. The PQ soft-peddled the sovereignty message. The leadership thought an independent Quebec could only happen through incremental not abrupt change.
Quebec Solidaire party doesn’t believe in soft-peddling the idea of an independent Quebec. Its leadership does not think Quebecers fear change and have to be slowly sold on the idea of independence in a step-by-step process. These new independence seekers are hard-assed believers and they now control the separatist movement.
One of the greatest errors many have made about Quebec politics in recent times is believing the separatist movement is dead. It never was and never will be. It goes in ebbs and flows and somehow, whenever there is a growing belief that separatism is moribund, Quebecers have a way of sending a clear message to the rest of Canada that their bottom line, at minimum, is rejection of the constitutional status quo.
In today’s terms that means the status quo Liberal Party is unmercifully thrown out of office, and the slow-moving-towards-independence PQ is rejected and humiliated. Those replacing the Liberals in the CAQ are mostly Quebec-first nationalists while those replacing the PQ are hard core separatists.
Pardon the cliché, but it could be déjà vu all over again.