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“After 40 years, sovereignty off the table in Quebec elections,” a Globe and Mail headline reads. For Quebec, it is a historic moment.
Since the inception of the separatist party Parti Québécois in 1968, sovereignty has been a defining issue of every provincial election. In 1980, PQ leader René Levesque held the first referendum on a question of separation. Voters rejected the idea, but by then, separatism was gaining traction. After the failures of the constitutional negotiations between the federal and provincial government of Quebec, citizens were dissatisfied enough to participate in another referendum. The 1995 question on separation lost by 0.58% with one of the highest voter turnouts in history. It was, and remains, a question that all Quebecers have an opinion on.
With the rise in popularity of the federalist party Coalition Avenir Québec, the election is now largely contested between the CAQ and the Liberal Party of Québec. The leader of the CAQ, François Legault, was once a separatist working for the PQ. He was a minister under Lucien Bouchard, who founded the federal Bloc Québécois and was one of the key figures in the ‘Yes’ campaign during the 1995 referendum. After leaving the PQ, Legault founded the CAQ in 2011. Since then, support has been steadily increasing.
Legault has sworn that separatism will never be a policy pursued by his party, although he does support policies that would give Quebec more autonomy from the federal government. The party’s intention to impose values and language tests on immigrants to Quebec will especially assert their autonomy in the face of Ottawa. For a long time, voters who wanted to stay in the Canadian federation were forced to vote for the Liberal Party of Quebec.
However, the PLQ has also always courted votes from Anglophone and Allophone communities. Legault’s appeal to the nationalist sentiment has attracted those who felt their only option for a federalist party was the Liberals.
PQ has now had to adapt their strategy to keep themselves a viable ballot choice to the widest range of voters, and they have promised to leave the question of separation until their second mandate in 2022. The previous leader Pierre Karl Péladeau’s failure to appeal to separatist sentiment led them to lose the elections in 2014.
Lisée now says that if the PQ is elected, they will launch a study of the referendum plan and present it in 2021. They have not given up independence and continue to insist that the only party that the federal government will listen to is the PQ. Historically, that has been true, but popular support for sovereignty has waned.
However, the rising popularity of left-wing Québec Solidaire begs to differ. Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, as spokespeople for the party, may represent a new iteration of Québec sovereignty. They reject the nationalist rhetoric of the PQ. Instead, their vision lies in the creation of the “Republic of Québec,” where they will be able to pursue their policies without the interference of the federal government. Massé has stated that Ottawa needs to balance their decisions against other factors and will not necessarily prioritize Quebec’s best interests in policy-making. She cites the Trans Mountain pipeline as an example, while one of her candidates cites military spending.
On the question of separation, a Québec Solidaire government would launch an inquiry into the workings of the finances of a sovereign Quebec, then form a popular assembly to outline a constitution, which would then be voted on by citizens. They emphasize a democratic process, and plan to work with First Nations to ensure that they are given equal voice in regard to their ancestral and territorial rights.
The PQ’s platform on sovereignty is rooted in a historical perspective, while QS focuses on a brighter future. Generally, they both strive for a French-speaking Quebec, although QS has adopted a multicultural policy.
Without the urgency and desperation of the sovereignty movement in the late 20th century, parties will have to search for new ways to invigorate the population. Perhaps this is the first election in which sovereignty is not a defining issue, but the wave of support for Québec Solidaire demonstrates that it is not dead yet.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.
Feature image via Wikimedia Commons.