The Quebec Election: English Canada Slumbers On
by Dr. J.F Conway
University of Regina political sociologist and the author of Debts to Pay: The Future of Federalism in Quebec and The West: The History of a Region in Confederation.
Once again English Canada wallows in shallow understanding of the politics of Quebec. The victory of the Parti Québécois (PQ) on a beefed up sovereignty platform worried few. Among the worried was Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall who called Prime Minister Harper to seek assurances that Ottawa would resist the temptation to make concessions to the new uncertainty in Quebec. But he seemed alone in his concern. Pundits in Alberta suggested the best reaction to the Quebec election is simply to ignore it. The markets here and abroad shrugged with indifference.
English Canada’s politicians, journalists and opinion leaders found comfort in the fact that PQ Premier Marois leads a shaky minority government with 54 of 125 seats or 32 per cent of the vote. But contrary to received wisdom, the sovereigntist option is far from dead.
Firstly, the PQ government plans a confrontational campaign with the Harper government demanding full power over language, culture, immigration, and unemployment insurance. Furthermore, the PQ will seek to widen the deep political chasm between the right-wing Harper government and the more progressive Québécois nation over foreign policy, imperialist wars, tough prison sentences, harsher prison regimes, dismantling gun control, and sweeping cuts to social and regulatory spending. If this is successful, the PQ could well walk to a substantial majority in the next election, setting the stage for another referendum battle.
Secondly, Quebec’s students won. They brought the Charest government to its knees and mobilized a relentless campaign of sustained confrontation in Sherbrooke, successfully denying Charest personal re-election. This fact alone haunts Canada’s ruling class – the democratic awakening and surge in effective popular mobilization in Quebec could infect the rest of Canada (the voter turnout was 75 per cent, well ahead of voter engagement in English Canada). Canada’s rulers are of the view that democracy is all very well, and probably unavoidable, but the best of all democracies are those where voters don’t bother to vote in large numbers and don’t expect elections to change anything of significance. The students won everything, since Premier Marois fulfilled her promise to rescind the tuition fee hike and repeal Bill 78. In all likelihood the charges against hundreds of students and their supporters will be quietly dropped. But the students intend to hold the PQ to account, declaring that the mobilizations will continuesince it is about more than tuition fees. It is about building a more humane Quebec. The student victory was close. It was never a certainty. Charest almost succeeded in winning re-election on the backs of the students, taking 50 seats with 31 per cent. The icing on the cake for the students, however, was Charest’s defeat in Sherbrooke, announcing the end of his political career.
Thirdly, the federalist cause in Quebec is now in crisis. Charest was hailed as the saviour of federalism in Quebec when he first defeated the PQ in 2003. Proudly declaring his patriotism for Canada, Charest returned the Canadian flag to a place of prominence in the upper chamber of the National Assembly for the first time in 10 years (Marois has now taken it down). The death of the separatist movement was proclaimed by the media and politicians across English Canada. And for nine years Charest delivered – the PQ was denied office and the momentum for sovereignty abated. Now that the PQ is back, who will champion federalism in Quebec?
The Quebec Liberals won 50 seats with 31 per cent, but the Liberal party could be shredded as the Charbonneau Commission on construction industry corruption is publicly exposed. While it is true that the Liberals will always hold much of their loyal federalist base among anglophones and allophones, its reputation as the pristine champion of the federalist cause in Quebec will be badly tarnished. So who’s left to fight for the federalist cause?
- The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), riddled with soft nationalists and disillusioned sovereigntists, is hardly a credible champion of federalism.
- Harper’s Tories are moribund in Quebec, winning 8 seats with less than 17 per cent of the vote in 2011 (a September 2012 poll puts them at 15 per cent).
- The federal Liberals are in disarray, having won 7 seats with 14 per cent in 2011 (though the September poll shows they have recovered to 24 per cent).
Clearly there will be no credible, hard federalist force rooted in Quebec to carry the Canadian flag against the PQ in the near future.
Federalist hopes therefore fall by default to the NDP, having won 59 seats and 43 per cent in Quebec in 2011 (the September poll puts them at 34 per cent). This will be a difficult balancing act for the party, since many of its Quebec members harbour nationalist sympathies. But the federal NDP’s program is not hard line federalism, recognizing Quebec’s right of self-determination and declaring that a simple 50 per cent plus 1 in a referendum would be enough to trigger Quebec’s eventual departure. The NDP, unlike the Liberals or the Tories, is prepared to negotiate with Quebec.
So despite English Canada’s sleepwalking denial of historical reality, the future of Canada as a viable federation will be wholly determined by the coming events in Quebec.