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LYSIANE GAGNON

In Quebec, a dim future for sovereignty Add to ...

Two-thirds of Quebeckers, including 20 per cent of those who would vote Yes, do not want a referendum on sovereignty. And even though Premier Pauline Marois keeps vowing that she won’t call a referendum unless Quebeckers are “ready” for it, most voters are sure that the Parti Québécois, if re-elected with a majority, will hold one.

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That’s why Ms. Marois’s PQ lags behind the Quebec Liberal Party in voting intentions by as much as seven points, according to a Léger survey published Tuesday.

Such staunch refusal of a referendum is itself proof that a huge majority of Quebeckers are not sovereigntists. Otherwise, they would wish for a referendum, since it’s the only way to achieve sovereignty.

True, there are several reasons why people oppose holding a referendum. Some don’t want to go through this painful and divisive operation for a third time. Some sovereigntists are afraid that a third “No,” after the failed attempts in 1980 and 1995, would deal a deadly blow to Quebec’s standing in Canada. Some federalists don’t want to be put in a situation where they would have to vote “No,” a move they secretly see as humiliating. Since sovereignty is the politically correct option in many circles, it’s easier to oppose a referendum than to oppose sovereignty itself.

But the bottom line is that people don’t want a referendum because they don’t want sovereignty – period.

This is nothing new. Most Quebeckers have always resisted the idea of sovereignty, even though the ideal has dominated the province’s intellectual and political life for four decades.

In 1995, the sovereigntists came within a razor-thin victory – just 50,000 votes. But this was due to an ambiguous question, which let many voters believe that sovereignty would be linked with a close “partnership” to the rest of Canada. The mid-campaign appointment of the hugely popular Lucien Bouchard as a future “chief negotiator” reinforced the view that there would be no actual breakup and that everything would go smoothly, perhaps with the simple result of strengthening Quebec’s bargaining position.

The same strategy was used in the 1980 referendum: Then, the question was about a “mandate to negotiate” sovereignty coupled with a close economic association with Canada.

Claire Durand, a University of Montreal sociologist, has scrutinized polls taken on this subject between 1976 and 2008. Support for sovereignty goes down by seven points on average if there is no mention of association or partnership, she says. It goes down by 10 to 20 points if the question is about “independence” or “separation” rather than the softer, less-threatening concept of “sovereignty.”

Since 2000, when Ottawa passed the Clarity Act, which states that the referendum question must be clear to justify negotiating a province’s secession, the pollsters have stopped including the notion of a partnership in their questionnaire. Since 2008, average support for sovereignty is down to 38 per cent.

If there is another referendum, everybody seems to agree, including sovereigntist leaders, that the question will have to exclusively focus on sovereignty. This makes a Yes victory even harder to attain.

Prof. Durand’s data also show that support for sovereignty is lower than it was on the eve of the 1980 and 1995 referendums. The major difference, she says, is that sovereignty no longer mobilizes those under 50 and the most educated.

What’s the future of an option that doesn’t attract younger generations?

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