Separatism is back on the agenda

Pauline Marois courts PQ hawks, and starts up an old Canadian debate

Separatism is back on the agenda

Photograph by Roger Lemoyne

As a general rule, Parti Québécois members are a restive lot prone to all-too-public displays of mutiny against whomever is at the helm. So it was no small feat for PQ Leader Pauline Marois to score over 93 per cent in her first confidence vote—the highest achieved by any Péquiste leader in the party’s history. No wonder the party’s congrès national in Quebec City this past weekend was more spirited love-in than any in recent memory.

Yet Marois arguably bought, not earned, her overwhelming victory. The party’s hardline faction has long been weary of Marois for a perceived lack of sovereignist sang-froid. Under her, former premier (and hard-liner darling) Jacques Parizeau said last fall, the PQ “uses the issue of sovereignty . . . as a baby’s rattle, something used once in a while to keep the militants quiet.” So the Péquiste leader doubled down, effectively allowing a broad swath of her platform to be dictated by the party’s language hawks—thus ensuring that language politics and sovereignist fist pumping will once again be front and centre in the lead-up to the next provincial election, expected in the next two years.

Marois’s victory also became campaign fodder for the federal election: Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe said “everything becomes possible again” with Marois’s victory, prompting Stephen Harper to suggest that anything less than a Conservative majority would be devastating to national unity. (Innovative Research Group’s Canada 20/20 online panel for Maclean’s and Rogers Media suggests a slim majority of Canadians believe him.) Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has accused Harper of using the issue to fear-monger.

The emphasis on all things language-related marks a new direction for the PQ, which has struggled to capitalize on the chronically unpopular Liberal government under Jean Charest. Until this past weekend, the PQ hoped to curry favour with Quebecers by emphasizing its history of good, scandal-free governance. The sovereignty issue, though not dead, was in deep hibernation.

Yet the Péquiste ranks­, unsatisfied with the PQ’s failure to mention sovereignty at every turn, shook the rattle themselves. Apparently, Marois has listened. Under new measures adopted at the congrès, a PQ government would apply Bill 101 to Quebec’s system of post-secondary schools. This means all francophone and allophone (neither French nor English) students would have to attend CEGEP in French. (Currently, Bill 101 only applies to primary and secondary schooling.) Delegates also endorsed the use of public funds for the study and promotion of sovereignty and extending the French language charter to businesses with fewer than 50 employees. Most dramatically, they came close to adopting a motion that would forbid all English signs in the province. Only after some last-minute wrangling was this struck down.

As for the chances of a PQ government, Marois isn’t popular with the electorate; the PQ, though, has made gains, and Marois seems to believe people will migrate to her party out of sheer Charest fatigue. But by reverting back to language politics, she risks the wrath not of her own party but of the voting public in general. The CEGEP measure, in particular, isn’t popular beyond a coterie of Péquistes and goes against the will of two-thirds of Quebecers who believe parents should have the right to school their kids in the language of their choice, according to a recent Léger Marketing poll. Both the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (a traditional ally of PQ measures) and Parizeau himself have panned the PQ’s CEGEP plan.

There may be a method to Marois’s madness, however. By appeasing the PQ’s fractious delegates in the short term, she is able to present the PQ as a force unified behind its leader. “Party discipline is strong for the moment, meaning the radicals will be kept silent as long as they think they’ll win the next election,” says St. Martin. “Then, the PQ will eventually trade ideology for power.”

Marois’s confidence vote puts a likely end to others’ leadership aspirations, including a rumoured run by Duceppe. “He’ll be a good number two in the PQ,” says St-Martin. “Marois will make him a cabinet minister, and he’ll be in charge of preparing the terrain for the next referendum.”

If there is another referendum. François Legault, who once declared Quebec “ungovernable” as a province within Canada, has apparently had second thoughts. The former PQ cabinet minister, who is itching to get back into politics, now says Quebecers should concentrate on education and economic development, not sovereignty. Polls have him far and away the most popular leader in the province—even though he doesn’t have a party, and hasn’t declared his intention to run.

The spectre of a PQ government, a likely strong showing by the Bloc Québécois­—and a former Péquiste who wants nothing to do with either: the next few years promise to be interesting for both Quebec and the rest of Canada.

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