"In Canada, one 'known unknown' won't figure at all in the election, but it could easily be the dominating challenge for the next prime minister: the return of Quebec separatism," national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote in Wednesday's column, assuming the demise of Jean Charest's provincial Liberals within the next two years.
Mr. Simpson took reader questions on this topic Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. An edited excerpt follows, or scroll to the bottom to read the entire discussion:
Moderator: Jeffrey, is it politically possible, in your opinion, to bring francophone Quebeckers back into the business of governing Canada, rather than merely "demanding," as you have put it?
Jeffrey Simpson: There is an old expression in French (I guess it's in English too) that "une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps, translated to "one swallow does not a spring make." So when the BQ won the largest number of seats the first time, commentators rushed to say it wasn't spring, just a one-off development that reflected the anger of many francophone Quebeckers at the death of the Meech Lake accord.
Now, however, the BQ has been the favored party for six consecutive elections, and will very likely be so for a seventh. so now we have seven sparrows, and that means spring, which is metaphorically saying that something has fundamentally changed. It will take three things -- perhaps -- to change the pattern. First, if the Parti Quebecois is elected, it is possible that some francophones will see that the secession game is serious again and will stop supporting the Bloc. Second, a federalist party needs to have a Quebec leader, since throughout the province's entire history, francophones have never failed to vote for one of their own as leader when confronted with a choice of that person and a leader from elsewhere. Third, the party that makes inroad, if one can, must understand Quebec much better than federalist parties do today, and convey a compelling vision of Quebec in Canada, articulating what Quebeckers and those in the rest of Canada have in common.
Dalcourt: The Liberals don't have to call an election until 2013. That's an eternity, especially in Québec. François Legault's possible new party polls far above the PQ, whose leader is uninspiring and has failed to capture the attention of the public. The ADQ is another wild-card. The PQ itself is torn about whether proposing a referendum will even be part of their platform for the next election. I'm curious whence you draw support for such a bold prediction, considering this plethora of variables.
Jeffrey Simpson: Of course, a week is a long time in politics. I observe that as you know the Quebec tradition had been that a party gets two terms in office and is then replaced. So Mr. Charest and the Liberals are now into their third term. They are bucking history. Could a third party emerge? Anything is possible, I suppose, but look what happened to the Creditistes years ago and the Action Democratique recently. The first-past-the-post system is cruel to third parties.
Paul: Why don't we just let them separate? Quebec is a nation. They should be free. Jeffrey, can you outline your reasons for wanting Quebec to remain in the dominion?
Jeffrey Simpson: They've never voted to leave. We've been together in one form or another for several hundred years and despite internal tensions built one of the world's most successful countries. Why would anyone in their right mind want to break up such a winning combination? Occasional frustration is a really bad guide to long-term thinking.
RBlais: There is not much left to do, except for the next referendum which should be for Quebec's outright independence, and not "Souverainete-Association". The Clarity Act should take care of the ambiguity of the next question. Quebeckers have been de-Canadianized, and no longer care about the Rocky Mountains, as if they ever did....I wish it wasn't so, but it is time to allow them to vote for their Independence without any ugly campaining, and make this last referendum binding. If they become Independendent, they will survive, and so will we. (Except for French-Canadians like me living outside Quebec - we can kiss our language rights good-bye.)
Jeffrey Simpson: You are correct that a Canada-Quebec split would be a devastating blow to French-speaking minorities outside Quebec, and they are struggling enough to retain their language, except in Acadia, a thoroughly admirable group I might add.
Chris: Do you see the independence movement gaining traction ion Quebec with the current PQ leadership? If not, how likely is is that Duceppe may step down from the BQ and move into provincial politics?
Jeffrey Simpson: Pauline Marois has been around since forever it seems and is not terribly popular. She's certainly not in the Levesque, Parizeau, Bouchard mode. There are already rumours about who might be angling to replace her. Remember that dear Mr. Duceppe tried to go to Quebec City once to become the PQ's savior and was told privately in no uncertain terms to get back to Ottawa.