Return of the PQ : What it means for the Rest of Canada

By Angus Gillespie

Over the span of Canada’s relatively brief 145-year history, our nation has gone through a number of growing pains to get to where it now stands – which, by all accounts, is viewed by other countries around the world as a respected leading western civilization. Internationally, Canada is recognized as a place where people of all races and religions can come and live the great dream. We open our doors, embracing diversity. But another great aspect of our society is that despite the many diverse backgrounds, the ultimate goal is to remain united as one nation – under one flag.

That unity will no doubt be put to the test once again with the recent election of the Parti Quebecois in the Quebec provincial election. The PQ has origins dating back to 1968 when two political parties in Quebec merged, with Rene Levesque ultimately taking leadership. Considered slightly left of centre on the political spectrum, the party advocates national sovereignty for the province of Quebec through secession from Canada. The PQ has long held the belief that such a drastic manoeuvre is the only way to obtain complete economic, political and social autonomy.

History of the PQ

The first major triumph for the PQ came in 1976 when Levesque was voted in as premier. While the victory was embraced and celebrated by many Francophones, it also created a great deal of consternation within the business community due to the uncertainty of Quebec’s political future within Canada, and especially within the Montreal business community, which had by far the biggest to lose if things were to go awry. The result was a significant amount of economic upheaval from the Anglophone sector as a number of business operations opted to move west and clear of the potential war zone. Many of these moves served to benefit Toronto, which has over the years become the business capital of Canada thanks in large part to what happened in Quebec during those tumultuous years in the mid to late 1970s. Up until that era, Montreal was widely regarded as Canada’s main business and financial hub.

To look back at the history books, the acrimony between Levesque and the federal government led by Pierre Trudeau was as transparent as glass. The high stakes poker game for independence was ratcheted to the highest level in 1980 when the Parti Québécois initiated a referendum seeking a mandate to begin negotiation for independence. To the relief of many, it was ultimately rejected by 60 per cent of voters.

Levesque took the defeat hard – and seemed to take it quite personally – although he remained on as the outspoken leader of the PQ until 1985, when a number of serious internal crises led to his resignation. Soon thereafter, the party was defeated in the Quebec provincial election by the Liberals.

The next major challenge by the PQ erupted in the mid 1990s, with the blunt, loud and often abrasive Jack Parizeau leading the party. Once again the door was opened regarding Quebec’s independent status in light of the shortcomings of the Charlottetown Accord and Meech Lake Accord. Always the opportunist, Parizeau saw this as an opening and called a 1995 Quebec referendum but wound up taking a very narrow and very bitter defeat. Parizeau was so incensed by the loss that he resigned the following day but not before making a number of final ill-advised comments on his way out the door. His critics were quick to point out that Quebec and the rest of the nation got to see his true colours during that crushing defeat.

From there, former federal Conservative Cabinet Minister Lucien Bouchard took the reins as head of the separatist party. The former founder of the Bloc Québécois, a federal-level sovereigntist party, Bouchard opted not to call another referendum due to the absence of “winning conditions”. Bouchard remained on as premier until 2001, largely focusing his attention on deficit cutting. He was replaced by Bernard Landry who served as premier for two years until Jean Charest’s Liberals wrestled power away from the PQ in the 2003 election. He maintained his hold as premier until this past summer’s election, which he inexplicably called one year earlier than mandated, for reasons unbeknownst to many political pundits, especially when virtually all the polls had been indicating his party was trailing badly in popular support. For that reason alone, it would have seemed logical to want to buy some time in order to improve his party’s popularity numbers going into a required term election in 2013. Losing by just four seats magnifies the colossal gaffe even more.

On that same note, if there was a positive to come out of the recent election for nationalist supporters it’s that Charest’s Liberals fared much better than the polls had suggested they would, leaving the PQ with a minority mandate. It means the province is indeed very much split down the middle regarding its long-term status in Canada. Under Charest’s watch the province did make many strides, and the unemployment rate of 7.7 per cent is considered a good result compared with other regions and certainly considering it was at 9.2 per cent when he took over as premier. But his government was also saddled with more unflattering numbers it could not hide from. When taking office nine years ago, Charest promised to trim the fiscal fat. Under his watch, however, Quebec’s gross debt has gone from $133-billion, or 53.5 per cent of the GDP in 2003 to $184-billion in 2012. The current amount is 55.5 per cent of GDP.

Re-taking Power in Quebec

No sooner had the ballots been counted, confirming the Parti Quebecois had scored an ever-so-close minority government victory in the Quebec provincial election, when the Canadian flag was taken down and replaced at the Quebec Legislature in favour of the Fleur de lis. Apparently it’s a complete affront to the separatist PQ to have the national flag waving in their presence and flies in the face of their primary mandate – secession. As of now, no member of the ruling federal Conservative government has publicly criticized the PQ , but it’s obviously met with disapproval. It seems the federal government has determined not to engage in flag flaps as it could easily serve as one of many catalysts for public discord and further unification of the separatists.

Regardless of whether the PQ still has the same tenacity and appetite for sovereignty that it did under Rene Levesque and Jacques Parizeau, and to a lesser extent Lucien Bouchard, is largely irrelevant. At the very core, this is a party that still espouses to achieve outright separatism from the rest of this country. But it’s a separatist agenda that has always been based solely on its own self-centred needs.

A major hindrance in achieving that goal of outright independence, at least over the short-term of this government’s mandate, is the fact it only received minority support when Charest’s Liberals were ousted.

Premier-elect Pauline Marois has been leader of the PQ since winning the post by acclamation in 2007. Her victory celebration speech was marred by the shooting rampage allegedly perpetrated by a man named Richard Henry Bain, resulting in the death of 48-year-old Dennis Blanchette, a lighting technician and father of a young girl. Blanchette was working outside the Metropolis theatre earning $15 an hour when Marois was giving her victory speech. Another person was shot but survived. Bain, a 62-year-old lodge owner from Mont Tremblant, faces 16 charges including first-degree murder.

It’s still not entirely clear whether Bain had a particular target in mind or if his motive was to assassinate Marois, who was rushed from the stage mid-speech by her bodyguards just before midnight. She returned to the microphone shortly afterwards and told stunned supporters that an “unfortunate incident” had occurred. At this point in time she was apparently still not aware of the fact that a person had been killed and just how much of an understatement she had made.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was “angered and saddened” by the shooting. “It is a tragic day where an exercise of democracy is met with an act of violence. This atrocious act will not be tolerated and such violence has no place in Canada.”

Federal-Provincial Relations

The working relationship between the PQ and the federal government is a dynamic to be watched closely by political scientists to ascertain how well the two levels of government will communicate with one another on many crucial issues. Ottawa has agreed to open a form of dialogue with the PQ, but Minister of Industry Christian Paradis has already sent out a terse warning that there is no appetite for talk of new powers or finances for Quebec. Nonetheless, that won’t prevent the PQ from hammering away at those very issues. Paradis went on to say if the PQ insists on pushing that agenda, they’ll be talking to themselves.

Needless to say the forced partnership has been a rocky one in the past much like a ticking time bomb, but there is at least a certain degree of optimism from the Conservative government that there won’t be a lot of turmoil, given the current situation in the Quebec Legislature with the Liberals still holding a significant power base, combined with the Coalition Avenir Québec party.

“The Liberals obviously did much better than any polling suggested they would and the PQ only has a four-seat advantage and that obviously means that the aggressive nature – the tone of which some of those in the party wish to take with respect to federalism – isn’t going to be on the agenda,” Conservative MP Rick Dykstra tells CBJ from his office in Ottawa. “It would soundly be defeated very quickly in the Quebec Legislature.”

In other words, Marois and her minority government really won’t have much choice in staying clear of the thorny sovereignty issue at this point in time and will be forced to concentrate their efforts almost entirely on keeping the province economically sound.

“From a provincial perspective it certainly settles things down and maintains the focus on her platform,” Dykstra continues. “But it’s the pieces of the platform that pertain specifically to government ministries and agenda items that relate to the economy and jobs, versus getting into the whole argument of sovereignty.”

That said, the PQ has already made it abundantly clear they will push aggressively with newly-appointed minister of intergovernmental affairs, Alexandre Cloutier, who has been tasked with taking Ottawa by storm and looking to win new power for Quebec. In particular, Cloutier is looking to gain full control over the employment insurance program, as well as full jurisdiction and funding over cultural and communications policies.

Whether a Quebecker is for or against sovereignty, the one thing that trumps everything, and will always be the number one priority, is having a stable economy. People want money in their pockets. Getting the internal house in order is something all governments must achieve before venturing off into other areas of interest.

“Quebec still has a deficit with respect to its budget and there are still issues to face with respect to the economy,” Dykstra notes. “From anyone who’s looking at this from a Canadian perspective, it shouldn’t be lost on people that the success of the Canadian economy has been the 10 provinces and the three territories working together, regardless of which party happens to be forming government .”

Despite obvious political and philosophical differences between the federal government and the PQ, Dykstra maintains that job creation will supersede any discussions or arguments about sovereignty.

“We’ve created close to 800,000 jobs across the country; it’s not specific to one province,” he says. “There’s a little more out west but there have been jobs created in Quebec all the same and that is going to continue to be our focus. Our budget was all about the Economic Action Plan for the next two years. That’s the kind of specifics we want to deal with; I know that’s where the prime minister wants to focus on.”

But one can’t help but wonder just how long it will be before the PQ looks to open any form of dialogue on the possibility of separation. It’s an area Marois and her crew will need to tread very carefully on, because her mandate is not overwhelming in Quebec. It’s quite obvious there is little to no appetite for secession talks at the moment but even if there were, it’s not something Dykstra says the government is prepared to get into.

“It’s normal for PQ governments to want to pick fights with the federal government because they feel it makes their argument stronger,” he says. “But we’re not interested in responding and fighting. We’re interested in working together for the betterment of the economy and for Canadians.”

One of the concerns on a national level could be the response from other countries and how it could possibly affect trade. But Dykstra doesn’t believe that will be much of a factor.

“I don’t think, especially with respect to how close of a minority it is, that it’ll have an impact internationally,” Dykstra states. “When you talk about negotiating free trade agreements and opening up economic opportunities like we are trying to do with India and China and the EU, they are more concerned about Canada’s approach to how we’re going to do business with them and not specifically the impact one province is going to have one way or the other.”

Expectations for the Future

As CBJ’s financial economic columnist Alex Carrick points out in this issue, if for argument’s sake Quebec were to continue to forge ahead with separation plans and ultimately were to leave Canada, there would be a number of economic factors that would need to be ironed out. One such issue would be currency. If Quebec hoped to continue operating under the umbrella of the loonie, La Belle Province would be compelled by foreign investors to cut down on its deficit and greatly reduce its debt. If it decided to – or was forced – to adopt its own currency, the value would assuredly depreciate significantly compared to the Canadian dollar and it would conceivably spend a good deal of time just trying to claw its way to respectability.

Rémi Léger is an assistant professor in the department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. He specializes in Canadian government and politics, as well as in normative political theory and minority Francophones living outside Québec.

Leger says he’s not surprised that the PQ has regained power in Quebec because the winds of change had been churning for quite some time but admits the overall final tally did come in somewhat unexpected. Then again, it was based on polling, and we all know first-hand how fickle and incredibly inaccurate those have known to be.

“The surprise is how well the Liberals did considering what the polls were forecasting,” Leger admits. “Most polls had been indicating the Liberals would be going from forming the government to forming a small caucus of maybe 25 to 30 MLAs. As we know, they ended up with 50 seats, just four short of what the PQ got.”

Leger is of the belief that the stronger than anticipated results for the Liberals may have been caused in part by a number of voters who were outwardly showing disdain for current conditions, but when push came to shove, they opted to stick with the Liberals who are viewed as less antagonistic despite recent deficiencies and are far more about the concept of keeping a united Quebec that remains a part of Canada.

“One thing the polls cannot account for is the actual organization of a party on the ground,” Leger continues. “The Liberal party is a well organized, well oiled machine in the context of Quebec so it has a number of volunteers on the ground who are available on the day of the election for example, to bring people to the polling stations. That kind of stuff is actually really important on the day of the vote and I think the Liberals were very good at mobilizing their people and making sure their vote came out.”

The conciliatory tone likely to be brought forth by the PQ is very much forced upon them, make no mistake about that. A stronger showing at the polls and we’d be dealing with a very different and much more difficult political climate.

“If we can put Levesque and Bouchard in one era, I think the Marois government will be in a different era,” Leger opines. “Even if we look at the platform of the party and the campaign as well, sure they spoke of a sovereign Quebec but that being said, in the actual rhetoric of the party they never actually spoke of a referendum whereas they do speak of sovereignty, which is the ultimate goal down the line.”

Leger went on to mention there evidently needs to be a cut and dried distinction between the rhetoric around sovereignty and then actually concretely moving ahead with a referendum. It’s one of the noticeable differences this time around.

“If we look at the campaign that led to the previous election of a PQ government, which was in 1994, back then there was explicit talk of holding a referendum and as we know they went ahead with that in 1995,” he says.

Whether you agree or disagree with the separatist agenda and policies of the PQ, there’s no doubt the party is moving ahead with a more congenial tone than in the days of Levesque and Parizeau, when blustering rhetoric is what seemed to feed what was then a highly-charged and emotional topic. That’s not to say the underlying currents of that same emotion don’t exist, but without the numbers of support, the PQ is wise enough to keep it under wraps.

“I think they’ve become a bit more pragmatic in trying to get powers that for the moment are in the hands of the federal government transferred to the government of Quebec,” Leger acknowledges. “Previously when the PQ formed the government in the 60s, 70s and 80s, everyone who was interested in preserving language rights and identity in Quebec would vote for the PQ. Now the politics around that have changed and some of those people vote for different parties. So, if you’re interested in language or culture, you may have decided to vote for The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ).”

The CAQ in English translates to mean “Coalition for Quebec’s Future”. The centre-right party finished a distant third in the election, securing 19 seats in the legislature. Previously the PQ served more as an umbrella party for many Quebec citizens concerned with language and culture, but that has now been splintered with more party options from which to select.

The mandate of the minority government forces the PQ to move ahead in a direction at a speed not likely to suit their wishes, but they realize there is little room for error or they could wind up sinking the boat. Rocking it in anticipated stormy confrontations with the federal Conservative government – that’s another matter altogether.