The epic collapse of Quebec separatism

The enemies of the sovereignty movement aren't the Liberals, immigrants or any of the PQ’s bogeymen: It’s the march of time

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

Before the Parti Québécois imploded, Pauline Marois danced. On a chilly April night just over a week before the election, the PQ leader was in her element: on a stage, on her 65th birthday, in the arms of Jean-Pierre Ferland. Her favourite singer, Ferland crooned the words to his song T’es belle (“You’re beautiful”) in her ear and through a microphone to the roughly 2,000 PQ faithful swooning along in front of her. Members of Marois’s family, including her 88-year-old mother, watched as the pair sashayed back and forth in the blue light of Montreal’s Théâtre Telus.

“T’es belle,” whispered Ferland to Marois at the end of the song. Outside, well-wishers lined up in vain around the corner for a chance to get in. Inside, there was barely enough room to dance. Sweaty and festive, it was less political rally than fervent love-in for Quebec’s first female premier. “What a present,” Marois said afterward, her eyes rimmed with tears.

It might as well have been her swan song. Nine days later, the Quebec electorate handed the Parti Québécois its largest electoral defeat, in terms of the popular vote, in 44 years. It is arguably the largest moral defeat in the party’s history. Losing to the dreaded Liberal Party of Quebec, which was chest-deep in political scandal hardly 18 months ago, is difficult enough; losing to rookie leader and unalloyed federalist Philippe Couillard is that much worse. And losing an election that the PQ itself framed as a treatise on secularism and the survival of the French language is, quite frankly, catastrophic.

Sovereignty isn’t dead. It is impossible, sovereignists themselves often say, to kill a dream shared by a rock-ribbed 30 per cent of the population. Rather, Quebec’s sovereignty movement goes through fits and starts, peaks and valleys, a sleeping giant that can wake up and roar at a moment’s notice.

But as Marois’s grey-tinged love-in suggested, the movement isn’t getting any younger. A recent study by public opinion analyst Claire Durand notes that in 1980, support for sovereignty was strongest among those francophones under the age of 35. Today, Durand’s study shows, the average sovereignist is above 55. Translation: the once-youthful sovereignist is fighting the same battle as he settles into retirement age. “Demography has caught up with us,” mused writer and broadcaster Denise Bombardier on a Quebec City radio station during the campaign.

In this respect, the mortal enemy of the sovereignty movement isn’t the Liberal Party of Quebec, the Trudeau family, the federal government, Quebec’s immigrant population or any of the other central casting nightmares conjured up by the sovereignist movement over the years. No, the real enemy is the march of time.

As such, the sovereignty movement was pushed that much closer to obsolescence with the recent election. This Liberal win, like all Liberal wins past, means no serious talk of referendum, sovereignty or separation for four years at least. Decimated and leaderless, the PQ ranks will likely have to suffer through a wrenching leadership campaign before turning its sights on Philippe Couillard’s Liberals. PQ strategists will have to explain the party’s rudderless, error-prone election campaign that tanked its relative popularity in the space of a month. In the longer term, the PQ MNAs will have to answer for the party’s so-called Quebec values charter, which many feel targeted Quebec’s religious minorities­—and in all likelihood hurt the party’s chances of moving beyond its white, francophone base. All of this will take time, which isn’t on the PQ’s side.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Buoyed by a jump in the polls and a listless showing by Liberal Leader Couillard, Marois confidently called an election on March 5 with every expectation of getting a majority government. Instead, she (and the province) got a quick and nasty campaign dominated by referendum chatter and the short-term economic tremors it inevitably causes. The mere mention of an election last fall caused Montreal’s real estate market to dip. According to a report by real estate analyst Altus Group, new condominium sales sunk by half in the last quarter of 2013. The cause, says Altus condo market director Mathieu Collette, “was an early winter and election speculation.”

Montreal-based businessman Leonard Schlemm, co-owner of the Steve Nash fitness club chain, told Maclean’s that he knew of three major Montreal residential developments that would not have gone ahead had the PQ won a majority. “Everyone is in a state of limbo” during Quebec elections, Schlemm says. A separate Altus group report suggests the long-term economic consequences of Quebec’s reigning 40-year obsession have been particularly damaging in Montreal, where office vacancy rates have ticked steadily upwards by four percentage points since 2008.

The Liberals, meanwhile, were more than happy to run on this fear of uncertainty, if only because it has worked so well in the past. “[Former Quebec premier] Jean Charest always said that every election is a referendum in Quebec,” Yves Bolduc said during a campaign stop just over a week into the campaign, in the Quebec City area. The Liberal MNA and former health minister then delivered what has become a well-worn and cynical political truism in Quebec. “People who don’t want a referendum don’t have much choice but to vote for us.”

The Liberals couldn’t do it alone, of course. The party needed a proper vessel through which to channel the referendum bogeyman, someone who could scare the traditionally conservative sensibilities of the Quebec electorate, and energize its party’s federalist base. That person was Pierre Karl Péladeau, the Parti Québécois’s star candidate, who managed to achieve all of this in the space of one press conference early on in the campaign.

The Parti Québécois has long prided itself on being a coalition of diverse political opinions united under by the goal of sovereignty. “Independence is neither left nor right, but forward,” as Bernard Landry’s oft-repeated phrase goes. It’s not entirely true, of course; the party still leans to the left, even after the zero-deficit reforms of former PQ leader Lucien Bouchard.

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Yet Péladeau’s arrival was a stretch even for the party’s big-tent conceit. As Quebec’s reigning media tycoon, Péladeau bought up huge swaths of Quebec’s cultural landscape, from book publishers to magazines to newspapers to television stations. He flooded this cultural vertical integration model with content from producer (and now ex-partner) Julie Snyder, much of it French-language takes on American reality television shows. It is the stuff of horror stories for Quebec’s old cultural elite. “The Quebecor aesthetic infuriates me,” musician and longtime PQ supporter Yves Lambert once said.

Péladeau’s time at the helm of Quebecor, meanwhile, was marked by frequent clashes with the various unions representing his employees. According to the FTQ, Quebec’s largest union federation, Péladeau was responsible for 14 lockouts in as many years as president of the multi-media giant. For many in Quebec’s formidable union movement, long an ally and supporter of the Parti Québécois, Péladeau’s recruitment was an act of treason.

Yet as a brand name, Péladeau is second to none. By recruiting him, the Parti Québécois harnessed the star power of one of the most recognizable figures in Quebec. That his record as a businessman is mixed—he oversaw the 2008 collapse of Quebecor World, the company’s publishing interest—doesn’t much matter, because in Quebec’s cloistered political and media spheres, he is seen as a success.

The smart political strategist would do the following: put Péladeau on a stage and make him talk strictly about how he transformed Videotron from a Podunk cable company beset by labour troubles into the province’s leading cable and wireless concern. In the vacuum of a month-long election campaign, Péladeau the businessman could easily hide the red-ink-stained legacy of the PQ’s 18 months in power.

Instead, we got Péladeau the Quebec separatist. On a chilly Monday morning three days into the campaign, Péladeau took the stage with Pauline Marois and, after a 13-minute speech vaunting his economic record and the beauty of his riding of St-Jérôme, he uttered 30 words that would overshadow his campaign and that of his newly adopted party. “Finally, I end by telling you that my membership in the Parti Québécois is in line with my most profound and intimate values,” he said in French. “That is to say, make Quebec a country!”

An outsider to Quebec politics would probably shrug at Péladeau’s words; one would expect a declared separatist to declare his desire for separation, after all. Péladeau, who according to a Parti Québécois source, wrote the speech himself, certainly seemed to think as much.

Yet with his fist-bumping cri de coeur, Péladeau fell into the long-widening chasm between the Parti Québécois and its would-be electors. Support for sovereignty has been stagnant for ages, while the desire to exercise the means to get there—a referendum—has regressed. Some 64 per cent of Quebecers don’t want another referendum, according to a recent poll by the CROP polling firm. Even diehard Péquistes thought Péladeau went too far.

“I think he wanted to show his loyalty to the Parti Québécois and be liked by its members and he pushed a little more than he really had to,” said Gilles Gaudrault, a PQ supporter who was at the Marois love-in.

In the immediate aftermath of Péladeau’s declaration, Marois mused that citizens of a separate Quebec would have their own Quebec passport; people and goods would flow freely over the open and undefended borders with Canada. Quebec would use the Canadian dollar, and lobby for a seat with the Bank of Canada. Her strategists quietly put an end to Marois’s flights of fancy within 48 hours, but the damage was already done. And it was irreversible.

In Quebec City, Péladeau’s candidacy should have hearkened a return of the PQ in what has been a bastion for the right-of-centre Action Démocratique du Quebec party and its successor, the CAQ, led by former PQ minister François Legault. Yet Péladeau seemingly did himself in with those 30 words in this surprisingly conservative and federalist region and beyond. “I’m so disappointed in the guy it’s ridiculous,” says Mario Roy, an insurance broker and sometimes radio DJ, who in 2010 worked on a campaign with Péladeau to bring an NHL team to Quebec City. “You want to go into politics to fix public finances and put things in order? Fine. But to pump your fist and say you want a country? Tabarnac.”

It says something about the peculiar state of the sovereignty movement in Quebec that its star attraction couldn’t talk about it without the entire cause suffering politically, yet apparently the message was received. At the Théâtre Telus event, where you’d think a sovereignist leader would speak freely to a room full of the faithful, Marois and the PQ candidates stayed largely clear of the issue of sovereignty. Perhaps it was the lingering sting of Péladeau’s words, or the line of television cameras in front of her as she spoke. Péladeau didn’t even mention the word that night; a vote for the PQ, he said, was “a vote for the economy and jobs.” PQ candidate and former student leader Martine Desjardin was only slightly more direct. “We’ll be there when it comes time to build a country,” she said.

Instead of sovereignty, the Parti Québécois sought to ban religious symbols from the heads, necks and lapels of Quebec’s public sector employees. Introduced by way of a strategic media leak to the populist tabloid Journal de Montréal late last summer, the Quebec values charter sought guarantee for “the secular nature of our institutions,” as PQ minister and charter architect Bernard Drainville said. As a piece of legislation, it was almost certainly doomed to be challenged and defeated in the court, according to the province’s law society and its human rights commission, among others.

As an electoral gambit, though, the charter was seemingly a masterstroke. It allowed the PQ to pitch itself as the defender of Quebec’s francophone majority without having to talk about sovereignty itself. Successive polls suggested the majority of francophone voters liked the idea of a secularism charter, and the PQ saw a bump in its poll numbers in the wake of its introduction.

No surprise, then, that in the second week of the campaign, as Péladeau’s sovereignty sortie had effectively halted the PQ’s campaign, Drainville was tapped to rework his charter magic for the election. No surprise, too, that Drainville himself trotted out a warhorse of his own, a person who could add to the charter issue what Péladeau was meant to bring to the PQ’s economic platform: pioneering Quebec feminist Janette Bertrand.

Drainville introduced Bertrand at the Marois love-in, and the 89-year-old dame of Quebec culture hobbled out on a clear Plexiglas cane, cast aside her prepared speech and gave a fiery five-minute plea for a PQ majority. Anything short, she said, “and we risk pushing the plight of women backwards” in Quebec. Soon after, Drainville sent out a selfie of himself and Bertrand to his roughly 35,000 Twitter followers—one of the nearly 130 pro-charter tweets Drainville published in just over a month.

It took only marginally longer than Péladeau for Bertrand to flame out as a PQ saviour—15 hours, to be exact. The morning after her speech, Bertrand attended a “secular brunch” in the Montreal suburb of Laval with Drainville and local PQ candidate Léo Bureau-Blouin, 22, a former student leader.

Surrounded by reporters, Bertrand again went off the cuff, saying “foreigners, rich McGill students” (nameless Muslim men, apparently) had overtaken the pool in her building because they couldn’t bear the sight of Bertrand and her female friend doing their weekly aqua gym class. “That is what is going to happen if there is no charter,” she said. Bureau-Blouin, in the background, bowed his head and flicked dejectedly at his iPad, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but here.

Hurtful and demonstrably false—the Montreal Gazette quoted the manager of Bertrand’s building calling her claims “completely fictional”—Bertrand’s comments underscored the level to which the debate around the charter had sunk by the campaign’s end.

The consequences were felt in Montreal, where the vast majority of Quebec Muslims live. A year and a half ago, 18-year-old Hajar Nidbihi decided to begin wearing the Muslim headscarf. Though her parents were steadfast against her decision, in part because they worried how people would react, Nidbihi didn’t have any problems until early fall, shortly after the charter made headlines. A woman on the bus demanded that Nidbihi give up her seat, even though the bus was virtually empty. In another incident not long after, a passerby yelled out “bin Laden” at Nidbihi as she entered a Metro station. “Quebec society changed” after Drainville introduced the charter, Nidbihi said recently. “People became more scared. They’d either pity me or think I have a bomb.”

“The damage is done,” she continues. “I don’t want employers to think my religion guides my work. I might move to Ontario.” It’s a particularly damning statement for the PQ: Nidbihi is educated, French-speaking—and, like her parents, a lifelong sovereignist who once dreamed of living in a separate Quebec. No longer.

The third pillar of Marois’s campaign, corruption and integrity, should have been a cakewalk for the governing Parti Québécois. The party came to power in 2012 largely as a result of a near-palpable disgust with the Liberal government, whose eight-year reign was dogged by corruption allegations. The Charbonneau commission investigating corruption in the province’s construction industry, which former Liberal premier Jean Charest reluctantly called in 2011, uncovered how Liberal party fundraisers would regularly pester construction company owners and engineering firms for $3,000 cheques, the maximum political donation according Quebec electoral law.

Even here, though, Marois was arguably done in by her own rise to power—and by her own husband, Claude Blanchet. The diminutive and intense businessman is perhaps best known for his long-standing ties with the FTQ, the province’s largest labour federation, if not his plume of bleached blond hair and luminescent white teeth. His name came up in wiretapped conversations between former FTQ president Michel Arsenault and Jean Lavallée, head of the FTQ’s construction division, in January.

In the conversation, Lavallée is heard speaking about a “deal” with Blanchet. Though the nature of the deal remains nebulous, it was clear from the conversation that Lavallée wanted to use it as leverage to convince Marois not to call for a public inquiry into the province’s construction industry, which the FTQ vociferously opposed. (Marois ended up calling for an inquiry, and has always denied any deal between her husband and the FTQ.)

The more damaging news came in the third week of the campaign, days after Marois’s birthday soirée. Radio-Canada reported that Blanchet had pressured two engineering firms to donate to Marois’s leadership campaign in 2007. One businessman associated with an engineering firm said he gave Blanchet $25,000 in cheques. (Blanchet denied he did any such thing.)

While there is nothing illegal in soliciting individuals at large corporations, it is exactly the kind of thing Marois herself decried, as the practice lends itself to so-called “straw man” donations, in which company employees donate to a candidate with the promise of being reimbursed by the company—which is illegal.

Neither the PQ nor the Liberals were above straw-man donations. Between 1998 and 2009, engineering firms who admitted during the Charbonneau commission to soliciting donations from their employees collected roughly $2 million for the Liberals and about $1.4 million for the Parti Québécois, according to figures compiled by La Presse’s Pierre-André Normandin.

The bipartisan nature of political corruption in Quebec was plain to see from the outset of the election. Marois called the election days before she and Blanchet were to testify in front of a parliamentary committee about the couple’s fundraising activities. The Liberals, meanwhile, were lucky enough to get through the election before a publication ban was lifted on the identities of 11 Liberal higher-ups currently being investigated by the province’s anti-corruption task force.

From his jail cell in Panama, where he is fighting extradition to Canada on fraud charges, disgraced businessman Arthur Porter endorsed his former business partner Philippe Couillard. Premier Marois was given a similarly unwelcome shot in the arm from Bernard “Rambo” Gauthier, a union strongman who has admitted to physically intimidating workers from rival union locals. If anything, the election has proven yet again how political corruption is practically an equal opportunity crime in Quebec.

Through it all—the campaign missteps, the bungled opportunities—Philippe Couillard seemed to grow all the more serene as the PQ campaign imploded.

A neurosurgeon by profession, Couillard’s calm was a stark counterpoint to Jean Charest, his punchy predecessor. Whatever his attributes, Couillard was dangerously lacking in experience. Leading a general election campaign is complex work. Rookie leaders rarely do well. Couillard was the only leader in this election who was leading his first campaign. Fortunately for him, experience was eager to lend a hand.

Experience, in this instance, came in the person of Daniel Johnson Jr., 69, who had served briefly as a Liberal premier of Quebec before losing the 1994 election. But Johnson had watched his father, Daniel Johnson Sr., and brother, Pierre-Marc, each serve as premier at the head of other parties before him. He had served a total of five years as Liberal leader. He had almost 20 more years to ponder what he’d learned. By the summer of 2013, he was increasingly fed up with Marois’s government.

“My wife could see me walking around in the house like a caged animal,” Johnson told Maclean’s. “She said, ‘Why don’t you run, if you’re so upset?’ ”

What had upset him was the introduction of the Quebec values charter. “They did it for purely electoral reasons,” Johnson said, decrying “the mendacity of it all . . . To see how the PQ was so misusing its new-found lease on power even though it was a minority government—it was utterly dishonorable.”

So as summer turned into autumn, Johnson contacted Couillard and offered his services. Couillard eagerly accepted, and Johnson became “what I like to call the non-executive director of the war room.”

This meant rising at 5 a.m. most days to attend a 7 a.m. strategy meeting and another at midday.

It also meant “playing like a Rubik’s Cube with ridings and candidates,” as Johnson sought to recruit prominent new Liberal candidates and “help them soft land” by ensuring the recruits would face no significant challenge for the party’s nomination in safe ridings. “The leader and his entourage shouldn’t worry about these things,” Johnson said of candidate recruitment, “so I did.”

In the home stretch of the campaign, Johnson worked with other senior Liberals to prepare to implement a transition plan for a new Liberal government.

Johnson, who acts as senior counsel with the law firm McCarthy Tétrault, said that despite his lack of experience as a leader, Couillard was a quick study. “He’s always digging a little deeper. He’s an incredible student of history and politics. He reads so much, and he does this consistently, all day, every day.”

Consistently, what drove Johnson to keep helping was the charter. He found the bill and Drainville dangerously divisive. “That people who should know better would, with full force of the government, try to impose a new paradigm of how the society should function—I couldn’t stay on the sidelines when they did that.”

He says that one of the main challenges facing a new Couillard government will be mending some of the divisions left by its PQ predecessors. “The harm that they have done to our society will have to be addressed,” he said. “We’ll have to rebuild ties of mutual respect and confidence among groups in our society.”

In the end, Couillard’s win mirrored the man: slow and steady. “Couillard came out strong and rode the popularity. Quebec was Liberal red to begin with, and it became more red as the election progressed,” said Clifton Van Der Linden, who analyzed data culled from roughly 475,000 people who took the CBC Vote Compass survey.

A similar survey, which groups participants by postal code and asks them to rank their electoral priorities, picked up on the NDP’s 2011 sweep of Quebec—the so-called “orange crush”—before it registered in the polls.

“A large part of the campaign ended up being about integrity. People who took the survey felt the Liberal party had the least integrity, yet they also felt Marois had the least personal integrity among the candidates for premier, and she became less and less popular as the election progressed. Couillard just stayed steady throughout,” Van Der Linden said.

Shortly after her dance with Ferland, Marois walked slowly through the throngs of PQ supporters to her awaiting campaign bus—the same route out of the same theatre taken by Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe three years earlier, after he resigned in the wake of the Bloc’s devastating loss in the 2011 federal election.

Marois’s resignation a little more than a week later was a straightforward affair, read off a teleprompter, in which she said she would stay on long enough to ensure a smooth transition of power, and to express her worry about the future of the French language under a Liberal government. “I love all Quebecers,” she said, before exiting, stage left.

The bigger spectacle was the three speeches delivered before hers, by Péladeau, Drainville and PQ minister and strategist Jean-François Lisée. The three tenors of the Parti Québécois, whose missteps had arguably cost Pauline Marois the campaign, were apparently pining for her job before she even had a chance to resign. Even more incredible: that any of them actually wanted the job at all.

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