Separatism in Quebec
The Parti Québécois treads softly on the question of independence
SINCE its founding in 1968, the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) has had a single goal—independence for the largely French-speaking province of Quebec. When it won majorities in 1976 and 1994, they were followed by provincial referendums on independence in 1980 and 1995. The first was lost by a wide margin, the second by a hair’s breadth. Quebec secessionists have long expected to have a third go when the party next forms a majority government.
That moment looks close. On March 5th Pauline Marois (pictured), the PQ leader and head of a minority government in Quebec since September 2012, called a snap election for April 7th. Polls suggest the PQ will win a majority of seats. Yet Ms Marois has fobbed off attempts to pin her down on the timing of a referendum by announcing that a PQ majority government would first commission a white paper on Quebec’s future. Such hesitancy has dismayed stalwart separatists keen to get on with creating a country out of Canada’s second-most populous province. But Ms Marois has sound reasons to tread softly.
First, the party’s recent surge in the polls has little to do with public support for separation, which has stayed at around 40% for the past 12 years. It has everything to do with the PQ’s proposed law to ban public servants from wearing overt religious symbols such as a hijab, kippa, kirpan or a large crucifix (small ones are fine, apparently).
Critics see this as a naked attempt to polarise the electorate, pitting traditionalist Quebeckers against new immigrants from Muslim countries in north Africa and drawing a line between multicultural Montreal, a stronghold for the opposition Liberals, and the rest of Quebec. If so, it has worked a treat. “It works well with their base, which is francophone, rural and over 45,” says Christian Bourque of Leger Marketing, a polling firm. It also distracts from the PQ’s limp economic record and unmet promises from the 2012 election campaign.
There are strategic reasons not to promise a swift referendum, too. Talk of national unity tends to bolster the federalist Liberal party, which held 49 seats to the PQ’s 54 in the outgoing provincial legislature. The Liberal campaign slogan—“Ensemble, on s’occupe des vrais affaires” (“Together, taking care of real business”)—suggests the party will try to tap the concerns of business about separatism. Corporate Montreal has already suffered the effects of long-term uncertainty about Quebec: many firms moved head offices in the late 1970s, among them the Bank of Montreal, whose headquarters are now in Toronto. But few doubt there would be further damage if Quebec split.
François Vaillancourt of the University of Montreal estimates the loss of federal transfers, higher interest rates on Quebec’s debt and trade disruption would knock 5-7% off provincial GDP following a split. And just as separatists in Scotland are grappling with questions about its currency and relationship with the EU, big questions remain about whether an independent Quebec should retain the Canadian dollar and be part of a currency union, and about its future within NAFTA.
All of which suggests the PQ will continue to steer away from the sovereignty question. How long it could avoid a referendum in office is less clear. “It would be hard for them not to hold one. How else do you keep your supporters mobilised?” asks André Lecours of the University of Ottawa. “But it’s tricky because you don’t want to lose a third one.” Ms Marois called an election when she felt confident of winning; that may be what is needed for her to trigger another vote on independence.