The future of Quebec and Canada: all bets are off

Paul Wells and Martin Patriquin take us inside a dramatic campaign with a terrifying finish
Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest with wife Michele Dionne addresses party supporters following the Quebec provincial election in Sherbrooke, Quebec, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Olivier Jean (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
A shocking night
Olivier Jean/Reuters

Qu’est-ce qui arrive?” Pauline Marois asked. “What’s happening?” It is an eternal question in Quebec politics, but for the next premier of Quebec it had particular urgency because she was putting it to two plainclothes Sûreté du Québec officers who were hustling her offstage as she attempted to deliver her election-night victory speech.

The television images that followed were confused and terrifying: a man on the ground behind Montreal’s Metropolis nightclub, as police examined what looked like a firearm nearby. A fire outside the fire-escape staircase, a frightening sight given that if left untended it would have blocked an escape route in a club with a capacity of over 2,000 people. A hooded man being escorted into a police cruiser, shouting “Les anglais se réveillent! Les anglais se réveillent!” (The English are waking up.)

Montreal police reported later that a man had shot two people inside the club, leaving one dead and the other critically wounded.

This was one of the most emotional and difficult political campaigns Quebec has seen since the 1995 secession referendum, but none of this madness was a direct or logical extension of anything the politicians said. When a jubilant Marois began her speech by telling PQ supporters, “Tonight another chapter in her history begins,” she could not have known it would begin in terror.

Before she was so spectacularly interrupted, Marois managed to give a few hints about how she plans to govern. She spoke of the need to “work with all the members of the national assembly” and to find the “necessary compromises” governing will require. It will take some time to learn what that means in practice. Much will depend on numbers that still weren’t settled on election night.

But she had a message for the rest of Canada. “As a nation, we want to take by ourselves the decisions that concern us,” she said. “We want a country. And we will have one!”

Can she put that wish into action? Can she push her way to another sovereignty referendum with the thinnest mandate any new PQ premier has had? She can’t hold a referendum without spending public funds. She can’t do that without passing a confidence vote in the national assembly. If she lost such a vote her government would fall. She’s so close, but so far.

But while she waits for final results and tests the convictions of opposition members who, in some cases, have been remarkably flexible on matters of conviction, she will be sworn in as the premier of Quebec. Her agenda includes substantial new constraints on the public use of the English language and on public displays of religious affiliation, and substantial new tax increases. The frosty relations that her predecessor Jean Charest had with Stephen Harper’s federal government will soon look positively sunny in comparison.

One more thing is clear after a night that ended in confusion and fear. The extraordinary career of Jean Charest, who represented Sherbrooke for 28 years in Parliament and then in the national assembly, has come to an end—at least for now. It was a closer thing than the Liberals had dared hope. And Charest gave one of his most rousing speeches as he conceded. But the man Harper used to call “the most federalist Quebec premier of my lifetime” is no longer premier, and a very different woman indeed will take his place.

For two years, Jean Charest had stood in the national assembly and taken questions about his government’s links to corrupt construction firms. For three months, crowds of students and assorted hangers-on had marched through the streets of Montreal and other cities, protesting against his plans to increase university tuition and calling for his head. For his entire adult life he had faced whispered questions about whether he even deserved to be considered a real Quebecer, this man who spoke English as well as French and who had committed the unpardonable sin of beginning his political career in Ottawa.

Finally he got tired of playing defence. On Aug. 1 he took his shot. He gathered his cabinet at the national assembly for one last meeting, paid a quick visit to the lieutenant-governor, and held a news conference on the tarmac at Quebec City’s airport. Out of reach of protesters and hecklers. Such considerations would be paramount for every event of this tightly controlled, desperate campaign.

“The choice Quebecers will make on Sept. 4 is fundamental,” he said. The choice of date was obvious: the day after Labour Day, the earliest possible date after summer vacation. Charest needed voters’ verdict before the Charbonneau commission of inquiry into construction-industry corruption reconvened for public hearings later in September. But the date had personal resonance, too. It was on Sept. 4, 1984, 28 years earlier, that 24-year-old Jean Charest had joined more than 200 other Progressive Conservatives in victory on the day that saw Brian Mulroney elected prime minister of Canada. It was on this totemic date that Charest would make his last stand.

Why was the choice facing Quebecers fundamental? “We must choose between the referendum instability of Pauline Marois, François Legault’s plan for an unemployed Quebec or the Liberals.”

He caricatured Marois, the Parti Québécois leader, as a wannabe radical who had thrown her lot in with “the street,” with the tuition protesters who had brought Quebec’s universities to a standstill. He had never seen the PQ pay so little attention to simple questions of economic management, he said. As for Legault, leader of the upstart centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec, Charest wrote him off as an unreformed Péquiste parading as a false convert to federalism.

For more than a year, upwards of 70 per cent of Quebecers had been expressing dissatisfaction with Charest’s performance in poll after poll. His only hand was economic management. He had a “Plan Nord” to develop the massive mineral resources in Quebec’s subarctic north. His strongest winning policy hand was his willingness to stare down the protesters and hike university tuition fees—hardly a unanimously popular stance, but one that won him more voter support than anything else he was doing.

He needed the campaign to stay focused on economic management. He needed the protesters to keep reminding Quebecers how much they preferred Charest to chaos. His luck wouldn’t last. Three days after he dropped the writ, the Globe and Mail’s website carried an astonishing scoop: Jacques Duchesneau, the former Montreal police chief whose report into corruption had forced Charest to appoint the Charbonneau commission, would run as a candidate for Legault’s CAQ.

Duchesneau soon revealed himself to be a flake, telling a radio interviewer he would actually name cabinet ministers in a CAQ government before telling another interviewer hours later that he had been imagining things. He spent the campaign tossing out accusations of corruption as spectacular as they were vague and unsubstantiated. But no matter. His reputation as a straight shooter overshadowed concerns about his aim. By the campaign’s second week, the CAQ was competing with Charest’s Liberals. Marois’s PQ started in first place and never really looked back.

That Marois had even lasted as PQ leader long enough to see a second election campaign was a kind of exploit. A long-time senior minister in PQ governments, she had won the separatist party’s leadership after a kid named André Boisclair led the party to a historic drubbing in the 2007 election; she led the party to barely better results in 2008, and spent much of 2011 watching helplessly as separatist hard-liners, clearly orchestrated behind the scenes by Jacques Parizeau, left the PQ caucus one by one.

Her ability to hold her party together and keep herself in the driver’s seat earned her the ungainly nickname “la dame du béton,” the lady of concrete. As much as Quebecers were fed up with Charest, they told pollsters they were not more impressed with her. And in a very, er, concrete way the fragmentation of the sovereignist movement was a constant headache for her: two sovereignist parties were running against the PQ, threatening to seriously fragment the sovereignist vote in the process.

Québec Solidaire was the larger such party, a hard-left party with ties to the tuition protesters and the Occupy movement, but one that preferred to emphasize social democratic positions instead of sovereignty. When Françoise David, a veteran feminist activist who serves as one of Solidaire’s two “spokespeople,” performed well in the first of four televised debates, the party threatened to eat into the PQ vote, especially in downtown Montreal. The other separatist party was Option Nationale, led by one of the rebel former PQ members, Jean-Martin Aussant. “I left the PQ because it didn’t have a clear position on sovereignty,” Aussant told Maclean’s. “It won’t be the PQ that is going to achieve it.”

Surrounded by 48 mostly young, mostly wide-eyed supporters in his Nicolet riding, Aussant spoke frankly about sovereignty. “Sovereignty is not a magic recipe,” he said. “It won’t fix all our problems, but at least we’ll have control over the ingredients.”

After the rally, Aussant continued to deride his old party over beers. “They’re afraid of losing,” he scoffed. “After the 1995 referendum, there was a detachment from the cause, an abdication of the role.” He noted how during the debates, Marois studiously avoided mentioning any sort of referendum timetable, for fear of losing the soft nationalist and soft federalist votes on which the party had come to depend. “When Ms. Marois can’t talk about the main goal of your party, there is a real problem. She even invited federalists to vote for her party!”

It’s tempting to discount Aussant as the lone, now-defeated MNA of a nascent party on the fringes of the sovereignty movement, but to do so would be to discount the very real demographic threat Option Nationale (and Québec Solidaire) represent to the PQ. The average age of an Option Nationale candidate was 33; by comparison, the average age for outgoing MNAs prior to the election was 45. Marois spent the spring wearing the square of red cloth that supporters used to show solidarity with the tuition protesters, but as the election approached, she stopped. Aussant and the Québec Solidaire crew didn’t. A poll by the Laval University student newspaper, Impact Campus, suggested the combined sovereignist vote was over 80 per cent of Laval students, but that it was split evenly among the PQ and its two rivals.

This was serious trouble for Marois. Legault and Duchesneau had stolen corruption from her as an issue. The smaller left-separatist parties had taken sovereignty. She needed an issue she could use to differentiate herself and galvanize the finicky PQ voter base. She chose language and identity.

In 2007 she presented a draft bill on Quebec “citizenship,” which would confer certain rights—to petition the national assembly, to run for office, and so on—on people who met certain criteria, especially a command of spoken and written French. Now she pushed it further. Non-francophones would have to pass a written test before running for public office, she said, even lifelong anglophone or Aboriginal residents. (She retreated from that stance the next day when her comments caused an uproar.) She started dabbling in comparative religious ornamentation, suggesting that public servants would be forbidden from wearing turbans, kippahs and hijabs, but not crucifixes, as long as they were discreet.

Her guide along these assorted slippery slopes was Jean-François Lisée, a former magazine reporter who had served as an adviser to PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and  Lucien Bouchard. Lisée had long urged Marois to emphasize identity as a PQ rallying cry. “We don’t have to apologize for who we are,” Marois repeated on the campaign trail.

Lisée, now for the first time a PQ candidate, began making a crucial distinction in interviews. For 40 years, the PQ had advocated that French must be the “common language” of Quebecers—the language two strangers could depend on when they met in public. But now Lisée wanted the government to make French the “language of use.” Suddenly it was a problem for the PQ if a family spoke English or Portuguese in the home, and Lisée said the education system should prefer a newcomer from Bordeaux in France over one from China, even if the Chinese immigrant spoke French perfectly well.

This hardline stance upset a lot of voters and put a hard cap on PQ support, but it also put a solid floor under their numbers. Marois’s appeals to linguistic pride galvanized the PQ base. Legault and his CAQ had to go fishing for support in unfamiliar waters. Anglophone waters. Since the founding of his party, he had insisted he would never launch a sovereignty referendum. Now he said that if one were held he would vote No.

“Sovereignists, federalists, forget that,” he said with a wave of his hand at one Montreal fundraising cocktail party. “We’ll be together and we’ll be proud to be Quebecers.”

Legault won considerable interest among English-language news outlets; the Montreal Gazette wound up endorsing his party. But for many federalist voters, the notion of a former PQ cabinet minister collecting federalist votes didn’t pass the smell test.

Behind the scenes, the CAQ was simply unprepared to court the non-francophone vote in any serious way. One founding member of the party told Maclean’s that at a strategy meeting on July 30, less than 48 hours before the election was called, Legault’s organizers faced a near-mutiny from candidates whose ridings had substantial anglophone populations. Campaign material wasn’t ready in English. “It was clearly evident anglos were an afterthought for the CAQ,” this person said.

In the campaign’s home stretch, Charest began to show the strain of the campaign. His voice grew hoarse and his handlers kept him in a near-perpetual bubble, away from protesters and even, in most instances, from ordinary voters. But he was scrappy to the end. In a Montreal news conference five days before the vote, he took two dozen questions, sometimes joking, sometimes fierce.

“Why would anyone want to separate while Canada has one of the best economic reputations I’ve ever seen in my life?” he asked. “I am a Quebecer who believes in Canada. This is a great country.”

He mocked Legault for claiming to have no opinion on whether Quebec should separate. “If there’s a referendum, François Legault will go to his basement and lock himself in the cooler, waiting to come out.”

But in separate speeches on the last Saturday of the campaign, neither Legault nor Marois bothered to spend much time talking about Charest. The man who had been premier of Quebec for nine years was, in their calculations, irreparably damaged. Legault and Marois saved their most detailed criticisms for each other. On Tuesday morning as voting began, veteran pollster Jean-Marc Léger wrote that an astonishing 28 per cent of respondents said they might yet change their vote. The most crucial Quebec election in nearly 20 years was a toss-up.

In the end, the election produced a result for the history books. Pauline Marois becomes the first woman elected premier of Quebec. For a woman whose legitimacy as PQ leader has been contested and undermined for three years, it is a personal vindication.

But it is not quite the result she wanted. In the campaign’s last week the PQ worked hard to win a majority. It was not subtle: new posters and billboards went up across the province carrying the word MAJORITAIRE. The reason was transparent. Only a PQ that solidly controls the national assembly can hold a referendum on sovereignty, get its inevitably Byzantine referendum question passed by the legislature, and have any hope of rallying the population toward a separatist victory. Marois has been elected, but Quebecers have put her fondest dream just out of reach.

Even with a minority, she has the power she needs to deliver on threats she levelled against certain categories of Quebecers. Those who try to meet a payroll will find themselves paying a panoply of new taxes. Those who run a business in English with fewer than 50 employees must now worry that Bill 101 will be amended to make the business’s continued operation in English illegal. Many francophones who were planning to attend CEGEP or seek professional training in English will watch as Marois tries to foreclose that option. And Quebecers who have spent 40 years speaking French in public and some other language at home will now know that the government of Quebec considers them to be a problem.

Meanwhile the Charbonneau commission on corruption will be holding public hearings. Marois demanded a commission for two years before Charest called one, but there is every chance the thing could come around to bite Marois, because PQ officials are as likely to be named in embarrassing ways as Liberals were. And if this campaign did nothing else, it empowered the CAQ’s Jacques Duchesneau as a general-purpose leveller of vague accusations. Duchesneau now enjoys parliamentary immunity. He’ll be no end of fun.

That leaves sovereignty. Is it really out of reach? Or can Marois adjust the numbers? Late Tuesday she looked to be nine seats short of a majority. But it’s safe to assume the two Québec Solidaire members would vote with Marois on any sovereignty-related matter.

That leaves seven more. Legault’s CAQ is a coalition of federalists and former sovereignists, and it’s certainly possible some would change back if Marois offered them a shot at a dream. Recall the example of David Emerson, federal Liberal turned instant Conservative after the 2006 federal election. Of course it would take real work, and some patience and luck as well to change the math in the national assembly.

But surely Marois will take the Quebec voters’ jumbo hint and put the referendum project on ice? Most polls put support for the notion of secession at its lowest level in 20 years. Even if you add the PQ’s share of the popular vote to that of the little QS and ON fringe parties, the sovereignty movement’s total voter support is lower than Jacques Parizeau had in 1994, or René Lévesque in 1976.

It is an article of faith in Quebec political circles that nobody wants to lose another referendum. Such considerations were enough to stay the hand of previous PQ premiers, Pierre Marc Johnson, Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry. And Marois holds a weaker hand.

But Marois will have advisers, Lisée certainly among them, who will tell her: this is precisely why she must take the plunge. The PQ has only two unquestioned heroes in its pantheon, and they’re the two guys who held referendums, Lévesque and Parizeau. After they lost, the PQ was re-elected. After Johnson, Bouchard and Landry chickened out, the party lost power, and today their memory is tarnished. The track record on these matters is now more than 30 years old and it suggests it is much better for the sovereignty movement to lose a referendum than to back out of holding one. Marois has listened attentively to counsel from her party’s radical wing. It’s the only way she’s held the leadership this long. She owes them now.

If she takes the plunge, a new referendum would take place in a vastly different political context from 1980 and 1995. For the first time, the prime minister of Canada is not a Quebecer. Indeed, Stephen Harper’s political support in Quebec is almost negligible. For the first time, the Clarity Act, which Harper has never contested and which the Reform Party supported in 1999, gives Parliament a formal say in judging the referendum question and result.

One other difference has received almost no attention. Quebec’s referendum law carefully caps advertising expenses and requires that they be approved by a Yes committee and a No committee whose chairmen are the premier and Opposition leader. This made sense when the tools of political communication were billboards, television ads and bulk mail. In an era of Facebook and Twitter, such attempts to contain the debate within Quebec’s borders and stifle unauthorized communication are perfectly meaningless.

Daniel Johnson, the No committee chairman in 1995, forbade Preston Manning and Stephen Harper from showing their face in Quebec because he assumed their message would be counterproductive. Never mind that Harper is now Prime Minister: if there is another referendum, any genius or cretin with a Twitter account will be able to weigh in and try to influence the debate. Thousands will try. The resulting cacophony will be incomparably different from earlier campaigns, the result impossible to predict.

It seems impossible to believe we are headed for another confrontation over Quebec’s place in Canada. It is hard to imagine anything further from the preoccupations of most Canadians. But the photo finish of the 1995 referendum left unfinished business for the country. Pauline Marois, a negligible bit player in that drama, must decide whether she can try to finish the business. If she doesn’t, her radicalized party will destroy her as it did so many of her predecessors. If she does, she and Stephen Harper are headed straight for the history books. One way or the other.