Almost from its beginnings half a century ago, the separatist project in Quebec recognized that it had a problem: Most Quebeckers are not in favour of separating from Canada. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and then some.
In 1980, René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois didn’t dare ask voters a straight-up question, namely, whether they wanted to become an independent country. Honesty would have meant certain defeat. Instead, voters were presented with something mysterious known as “sovereignty-association.” The ballot asked Quebeckers to give the “Yes” side a “mandate to negotiate” a “new agreement with the rest of Canada.” It would feature, among other things, “an economic association” with Canada, “including a common currency.” What’s more, the referendum question promised that “any change in political status” resulting from these negotiations would have to be approved by another referendum. The PQ leadership understood that Quebeckers would only vote for independence if they could be convinced that they weren’t really voting for independence.
In the 1995 referendum, the “Yes” side were once again “souverainistes” and not “indépendantistes.” The question once again was evasive. A vote for “sovereignty” would mean not independence, but some kind of renewed “partnership” with Canada. Voters were asked, “Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” What bill? What agreement? Many voters were under the impression that voting “Yes” meant that the province would remain within Confederation. Making things overly clear was not in the interest of the “Yes” forces; it is now well known that the PQ government’s plan was to use a victory at the ballot box to make a quick dash for independence. Voters were to be sold one thing, only to wake up to find it had been substituted for another.
A great irony of the separatist project is that it is always more honest about its objectives in defeat than during a campaign. This was never more true than late on Monday night, as the three dauphins of the PQ – Pierre Karl Péladeau, Jean-François Lisée and Bernard Drainville – and defeated Premier Pauline Marois appeared on stage together and delivered concession speeches. After spending an entire campaign pretending that independence was a word they’d never heard of, that sovereignty was the furthest thing from their minds, and that the threat of another referendum was some slander dreamed up by their opponents, the defeated but defiant PQ brain trust was happy to reveal that sovereignty, one way or the other, remains the cornerstone of the party, and the polestar of their political lives.
Quebec voters are wise to the game. They’ve been wise to it for years. The PQ doesn’t have to speak about another referendum for voters to know that it is feverishly obsessed with almost nothing else. And other parties, namely the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Québec, also know that this is what voters are thinking. Both built their electoral strategy around a clear understanding of voters’ desires and fears: They desire peace and normalcy; they fear another referendum. The Liberals don’t want a referendum as a matter of principle. The CAQ, which picked up nine formerly PQ seats on Monday, is committed to not holding another referendum for practical reasons: because most Quebeckers, even those who identify as nationalists, do not want it.
Quebec politics is complex and nuanced, but it sometimes is also very simple. Two parties promised to worry about something other than referendums, and they won two-thirds of the vote. Quebeckers aren’t prepared to risk jobs, the economy and society in pursuit of an illusion.
Separatism is not dead in Quebec, but it remains a minority preference. That does not mean it cannot ever grow its appeal in the future. The wedge issue of the charter of values was an attempt to do just that, by creating an atmosphere of crisis and a siege mentality, aimed at whipping up nationalist passions, electing the PQ and creating tensions with the rest of Canada. The sovereigntist project cannot succeed in an atmosphere of calm; its fuel is crisis. Without a crisis, it hasn’t a hope. Voters understood that the PQ’s agenda, had it won Monday’s election, would have been to spend the next four years provoking crises and planning a dash to a third referendum.
The election of Philippe Couillard’s Liberal Party does not spell the end of the sovereigntist project. It may not spell the end of the PQ. But it does offer the hope of four years of relative normalcy and peace. They’re breathing a sigh of relief in Ottawa, and an even deeper one across Quebec.