Quebec did not vote for an independent Quebec in Tuesday’s election. The vote for the Parti Québécois was a narrow vote for change after nine years of Jean Charest’s Liberal government, that is all. But by electing a minority government headed by Pauline Marois, Quebeckers have effectively ended the moderation that has characterized relations between Quebec and other parts of Canada. The insouciance toward Quebec exhibited by the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper must also end.
Her hand is limited, but Ms. Marois has made clear that she will demand new powers for her province. Some of those demands, such as control over employment insurance, might prove reasonable. Others, over equalization, language and immigration, might not. But, though the strength of her own mandate for constitutional mischief-making is weak, Quebec’s premier-elect is still at an advantage in any fight with Ottawa because she is facing a federal government that is not just unpopular in Quebec but betrays an alarming indifference toward it.
This is a good moment for Mr. Harper to define his own vision for Canada. Leadership by case management will not see the country through a national unity crisis provoked by Ms. Marois. Nor does his cabinet, or his Quebec caucus of five, have anyone to assume that role were he to abdicate it.
Mr. Harper prides himself on decentralizing power. Ms. Marois’s goal is the total decentralization of power – or, to put it another way, the centralization of power in Quebec City. Mr. Harper has tried to ignore Quebec, and now it has come back to haunt him. With little cabinet strength and very little popular support in Quebec, he will be – unlike previous prime ministers confronted by the PQ – on his own. He will now face his defining test.