Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Quebec Decides

How the new separatism is shaping Quebec's vote Add to ...

This is the first of four weekly discussions ahead of the April 7 Quebec election, which is shaping up to be the most critical provincial vote in two decades.

The Debate

The resurgence of the Parti Québécois’s following the introduction of its proposed Charter of Values prompted Pauline Marois to call the election in the hopes of turning her current minority government into a majority. That prospect, and Quebecor scion Pierre Karl Péladeau’s move to run for the PQ, have put sovereignty and a third referendum back on the front burner. But while sovereignty talk mobilizes the PQ base, it also scares off voters who like the Charter but don’t want a referendum.

Mr. Péladeau’s full-throated endorsement of sovereignty, symbolized by his fist in the air, may have been an attempt to compensate for the fact that he has joined a party with which he seems to be at odds ideologically on many other issues. It worked, since even former labour leaders such as Gérald Larose and Marc Laviolette are singing PKP’s praises. But can it last, or will the PQ base soon start grumbling about PKP’s right-wing positions? And how much of a problem is it for Ms. Marois that PKP risks overshadowing her?

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Konrad Yakabuski Public policy columnist for The Globe and Mail
Moderating: Has covered Quebec business, politics and culture for more than two decades
Debate contributor
André Pratte Federalist and chief editorialist for Quebec newsaper La Presse
Pierre Karl Péladeau has turned the election into a plebiscite on a third sovereignty referendum that could backfire on the PQ
Debate contributor
Antonia Maioni Professor of political science at McGill University
The PQ’s resurgence has turned the race into an old-fashioned battle between federalists and sovereigntists
Debate contributor
Daniel Turp Sovereigntist and law professor at Université de Montréal
Mr. Péladeau has galvanized the PQ, while Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard is unworthy of leadership

The Discussion

Debate contributor

André Pratte: So much has changed since Mr. Péladeau launched his political career! PKP, who was supposed to be the key to the PQ’s majority, has all but disappeared from the Marois campaign. With his separatist coming-out and the enthusiasm it provoked in sovereigntist ranks, independence suddenly became THE theme of the second week of the campaign. This is exactly what the PQ strategists wanted to avoid, as in every past election. If the Péquistes manage to win a majority and there are prospects for a third referendum on independence, the right-left coalition that characterizes the PQ will remain intact. But if Ms. Marois returns with a minority government or if she is defeated (an improbable scenario at this point), then all hell will break loose – especially if Mr. Péladeau has leadership ambitions, which no one doubts.

Debate contributor

Antonia Maioni: I think Ms. Marois' hope for Mr. Péladeau was threefold: As the manifestation of a new breed of "French power,” an economic leadership that looks toward the Quebec state rather than power in Ottawa to bolster Quebec's economic and political future; as a star candidate who could potentially grow a PQ majority by winning over the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) vote from nationalist but economically conservative francophones; and as someone who represents generational change to take up the cause of Quebec sovereignty. There is little doubt that both Ms. Marois and Mr. Péladeau knew there would be a media frenzy. But it's a stretch to think that PQ strategists didn't expect to have sovereignty and an eventual third referendum front and centre in this campaign. By the same token, Mr. Couillard had better get his skates on for Thursday's debate. If he thinks Ms. Marois is Alice in Wonderland on sovereignty, there may be others who will think of him a Mad Hatter for resurrecting Meech Lake.

Debate contributor

Daniel Turp: I don’t believe Mr. Péladeau’s endorsement of sovereignty is related to ideological issues. I would suggest it had more to do with the emotion of a person who could finally publicly express his sovereigntist convictions, after having been, for professional reasons, very discreet on his views on Quebec’s political status. The support given to PKP by Gérald Larose and Marc Laviolette just shows that these two labour leaders consider the achievement of sovereignty as the most important goal for Québec and that Mr. Péladeau could play a key role in the attainment of such an objective. To be overshadowed by Pierre Karl Péladeau could be a problem for Ms. Marois, but Mr. Péladeau has a great deal of respect for Quebec’s Premier. He will not let it happen. Mr. Péladeau’s energetic stance in favor of independence obviously brought the issue of a third referendum to the forefront of the campaign. The challenge for the PQ is to make sure it does not become the only issue to be debated.

Debate contributor

Konrad Yakabuski: Frankly, I can’t figure out where Philippe Couillard stands on the constitutional question, just as I’m not 100 per cent sure where he stands on the Charter of Values and reasonable accommodation. After Mr. Péladeau’s arrival, Mr. Couillard made a potential referendum the main issue of the campaign. Last week , he was even talking about touring the rest of Canada to convince Canadians – including Justin Trudeau (!) – of the importance of recognizing Quebec as a distinct society. By Monday, all that was off the table. Instead, he was saying that, if there is any initiative on the constitutional file, it won’t come from him. As with the Charter, Mr. Couillard seems to have a hard time settling on a single message for both and anglophone/allophone audience AND francophones. In the end, he contradicts himself.

Debate contributor

Daniel Turp: In the end, Mr. Couillard shows he is not ready to assume any form of constitutional leadership. Such an attitude contrasts the approaches taken by former Liberal leaders such as Jean Lesage, Robert Bourassa and Claude Ryan. He resembles Jean Charest in this regard, after seeing that he is now (after much prevarication) unwilling to initiate any form of negotiation that would lead to the constitutional recognition of Quebec as a distinct society, the signature of the Constitution Act 1982 and the reintegration of Quebec in the Canadian constitutional family in time for the celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. Stephen Harper - and even Justin Trudeau - must wish for the election of Mr. Couillard, since they would face a very weak interlocutor on constitutional matters. As for the Charter of Values and reasonable accommodation, the leader of Liberal Party of Quebec espouses a very multicultural approach on this issue. He might please Canadians on this question, but his views are out of synch with those of the Quebec population as a whole.

Debate contributor

Antonia Maioni: The resurgence of constitutional issues has further doomed François Legault and the CAQ. He has lost the raison d'être of his anti-corruption crusade, his fiscal conservative voice has been eclipsed and he refuses to show his colours regarding the federalist-sovereigntist divide. As the polarization sharpens in this election campaign, Mr. Legault's support is being squeezed out fast. The question is where to? Conventional wisdom has it that CAQ voters will move to the Liberals, and that is what seems to be happening in the polling numbers. But several seats were won by slivers of votes in 2012, so the real question is how the vote breaks down in some key ridings.

Debate contributor

André Pratte: It is not easy to lead the Quebec Liberal Party and have a clear position on the Constitution. Most Quebeckers, including federalists, would like Quebec and the ROC to come to an arrangement so that the 1982 “exclusion” of Quebec is finally repaired and the province's “specificity” (Mr. Couillard's words) or “nationhood” (House of Commons motion) is recognized. When the Liberal Party backs away from that traditional position, it makes itself vulnerable to attacks by the PQ. When it reaffirms these demands, it has difficulty explaining how any deal could be reached since there is absolutely no interest for constitutional talks in Ottawa and the rest of Canada. Jean Charest had found a somewhat comfortable position by repeating that the “fruit was not ripe” for a new constitutional round. Philippe Couillard has yet to find the right words to express his thoughts on the issue without making himself vulnerable to shots fired by his nationalist adversaries and the media. It is unfortunate that he could not clearly define his position before the campaigned started. Fortunately for Liberals, "the CROP-La Presse poll" published Tuesday shows that the PLQ has not suffered from the resurgence of the constitutional question. On the contrary, support for the Liberals has grown. Whether that is just a temporary blip, a statistical aberration or the beginning of a trend remains to be seen.

Debate contributor

Antonia Maioni: With the kind of vitriolic blowback we have seen in the rest of Canada, Mr. Charest's "comfortable position" is a bit of a myth. And while Mr. Couillard has many strong qualities as a politician, taking on the mantle of constitutional reform would be a long shot for him. Over all, this campaign shows that the constitutional question cannot be relegated to the "calendes grecques" or postponed indefinitely.

Debate contributor

Daniel Turp: I agree with Antonia about the “calendes grecques.” Neither Mr. Couillard nor the leader of the CAQ, François Legault, who asked journalists this week to stop “bothering” him with the referendum, will be able to shy away from the national question. They will be asked and expected to enunciate a clearer position on the constitutional future of Quebec during the debate and the rest of the campaign. They will have no choice but to articulate their views on “les (vraies) affaires constitutionnelles” when the next government of the PQ tables its White Paper on the political future of Quebec.

Debate contributor

Konrad Yakabuski: I for one think it's unfortunate that the CAQ is being squeezed out by a repolarization of QC politics. Not that the CAQ is free of its contradictions, but it has the most realistic constitutional position in that it acknowledges there is no quick fix so let's get on with dealing with Quebec’s real challenges. The CAQ has never had to govern and has often chosen to pursue wedge issues of its own, but at least it talks about taking on the sacred cows. François Legault has shown more spunk than the other leaders. And his position is also representative of most Quebeckers’ ambivalence on the national question. They are neither diehard federalists nor diehard sovereigntists.

Debate contributor

André Pratte: The dwindling support for the CAQ seems to indicate that, as long as the PQ does not accept that Quebeckers do not want another referendum, a ‘third way’ such as that proposed by the CAQ is impossible. With Tuesday's CROP poll, Mr. Legault's challenge now is to avoid marginalization. If voters who fear a third referendum come to the conclusion that voting for the CAQ is a waste of their vote, they will rally around the Liberal Party. Expect Mr. Legault to hit Mr. Couillard hard in the next few days.

Debate contributor

Antonia Maioni: Except that, at the end of the day, this is but one cleavage in the vote. The other is the economy and the kinds of pocketbook issues that affect Quebeckers in their day to day lives and in their relationship to the state, such as health care. All of the political parties have to be able to address these issues, and here I think that PQ and the LPQ will be in for a fair fight.

Debate contributor

Daniel Turp: If François Legault’s is being squeezed out (and Tuesday’s "Too Close to call" projections made from the CROP-La Presse poll point in that direction with the CAQ dropping 13 seats to hold only five seats), I believe it is because it has no constitutional position. For that, he should only blame himself. In Quebec, the absence of a constitutional position is not realistic and does not pay off. The leader of the CAQ should have learned from the experience of the Action Démocratique du Québec, the party his CAQ swallowed in January, 2012. It was only when Mario Dumont decided to define a constitutional position in 2004 and choose to become an “autonomist party” that the ADQ really became a political force. Three years later the AQD challenged the Liberal Party of Quebec, won 41 seats in the National Assembly and ousted the PQ from the Official Opposition. Quebec constitutional politics always catch up with you. With respect to André Pratte’s suggestion that the PQ should renounce (is it once and for all?) holding a referendum on Quebec’s political future, the PQ has a right to persevere with this issue. Did the Liberal Party of Quebec ever renounce signing the Constitution Act 1982?

Debate contributor

Konrad Yakabuski: Honestly, I think plenty of Quebeckers prefer the CAQ’s idea of a constitutional truce but, unhappy at the prospect of a third referendum, have no choice but to back the Liberals. Besides, Mario Dumont owed his success in 2007 not to his constitutional position (he also argued for a truce) but to his ability to define the debate on reasonable accommodation. But all that is history now! We can pick it all up next week if need be. Enjoy the debate and bonne semaine!

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate