The Parti Québécois presented a show of strength and unity at its convention this month. Its leader, Pauline Marois, was buoyed by a 93-per-cent vote of confidence, a notable exploit in this notoriously fractious party.
Its delegates adopted a series of radical policies, especially on language, and they're determined to push for sovereignty and to adopt a strategy of confrontation with the federal government as soon as the party gets into power - a very likely possibility, since the PQ will be facing off against an unpopular, scandal-ridden government, and Quebec voters, after a decade under the Liberals, will be seeking an alternative, a normal reflex, indeed. For now at least, the PQ is the only serious alternative.
Does this mean that, in about two or three years, Canada will be facing a third referendum on sovereignty that might lead, this time, to the breakup of the country? This is doubtful, considering that however they try - even by combining the impressive forces of the PQ and the Bloc Québécois - the sovereigntists haven't been able to bring a sizable majority to support their option.
More significant, the word "referendum" has become a dirty word that the PQ itself doesn't dare pronounce. Even though a slight majority of French-speaking Quebeckers, when polled, express lukewarm support for the idea of sovereignty - as long as the concept is linked with the prospect of a partnership with the rest of the country - the last thing they want is a referendum. This, in itself, is a sign they don't want to break up with Canada, since a referendum is the only way to achieve sovereignty in a democratic society. Being against a referendum is a polite, face-saving way to say No to secession.
For now, the only hope of the sovereigntists is that, once in power, their strategy of provocation will raise such hostility in English Canada that the constitutional squabble would morph into vicious verbal warfare that, in turn, would trigger a resurgence of nationalist passion in Quebec and pave the way for a successful referendum. But a PQ government would have to tread cautiously and avoid looking as if it were spoiling for a full-blown fight - most Quebeckers, after all, have had their fill of constitutional quarrels and just want to get on with their lives.
The strategy of provocation would take different forms, from devising a Quebec constitution and "citizenship" to demanding huge transfers of powers that no federal government could agree on, to enacting a spate of new repressive measures against the use of English.
A PQ government, for instance, would forbid francophones and immigrants from enrolling in English community colleges (a distinctly unpopular measure even among francophones), would crack down on small businesses and mom-and-pop corner stores to force them to work in French, and would send inspectors to the hospitals and municipalities that have been granted bilingual status in order to check whether these institutions still serve a majority of anglophones.
The PQ delegates massively voted for an even more radical policy that would have banned the use of English on commercial signs, but Ms. Marois and the party brass, caught off guard by the vote (they thought the motion wouldn't pass in the plenary session), managed to convince the delegates to reconsider their vote, arguing that more information was needed and that a previous law on French-only commercial signs had been struck down in 1988 by the Supreme Court and condemned at the United Nations. The delegates complied, even though there's no doubt they knew perfectly well what they'd been voting for.