For the first time in decades, Canada does not live with the spectre of Quebec secession.
From the Parti Québécois’s first arrival in the Quebec legislature in 1970 until the most recent federal election, secessionists were a force to be reckoned with – in the Quebec National Assembly, the House of Commons, or both.
Who can predict the future? A strong and justifiable pride among francophone Quebeckers always defines the province. That pride can take many political shapes and head in various directions. Wound or threaten that pride, and who knows where the consequences will lead? Even a cursory understanding of Canadian history suggests that relations between francophone Quebeckers and other Canadians always provide a mixture of tension and co-operation.
But 2011 did witness the collapse of the Bloc Québécois, which had been francophone Quebeckers’ preferred federal party for six consecutive elections. It witnessed constant internal disarray inside the Parti Québécois. And it witnessed a drop in the polling numbers for both secessionist parties and for the secession option in general.
When the Bloc chose a new leader recently to replace defeated leader Gilles Duceppe, a derisory number of members voted. With the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest so unpopular, it ought to be the official opposition PQ benefiting. Instead, at least for the moment, Quebeckers favour a new party – the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec – whose policies are a grab bag of right and left, but whose leader has promised to put all constitutional talks on hold for a decade.
The CAQ just merged with the right-of-centre Action Démocratique du Québec, so who knows how that marriage will work? That this group leads in the polls, and that the NDP swept the province in the federal election, illustrates a desire for changement. What sort of change, however, remains unclear – except for an apparent desire to get away from the infernal existential debate about Quebec’s being in or out of Canada.
This is a revolutionary position in Quebec. Every provincial government since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s – Liberal, Union Nationale or PQ – always demanded constitutional changes of some sort or other.
Slogans and formulas filled dictionaries describing the dream-palace changes Quebec sought. Think of those decades: The Official Languages Act and bilingualism; psychodramas over proposed constitutional changes (Meech Lake and Charlottetown); one successful change (patriation) that left at least some Quebeckers feeling angry and betrayed; the Clarity Act; a Supreme Court reference; the whole business about a “fiscal imbalance” between Quebec and Ottawa.
The rest of Canada eventually became bored with the whole debate, and fatigue has also apparently set in for Quebec. The rest of Canada remains a distant, rather uninteresting place for Quebeckers, but it doesn’t threaten them much either.
There is now, as always, debate about the state of the French language – what with the Montreal Canadiens having installed a new interim head coach who can’t say a sentence in French, the province’s pension fund having unilingual managers and a senior vice-president at La Banque Nationale being unilingual. These are internal debates, having nothing to do with Quebec’s status in Canada. By and large, the French language is doing well in Quebec, although sensitivity to its place and status will always be omnipresent.
Quebec’s economy is doing better than Ontario’s, with a lower unemployment rate and a deficit more under control. Ratings agencies are warning Ontario and its institutions these days, not Quebec.
Mr. Charest, appealing to nationalist sentiment, has been often unhappy with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, but he hasn’t called into question Quebec remaining in Canada.
Mr. Harper said after the election that he could take some credit for the collapse of the Bloc, presumably because he tried to get along with Quebec.
Not that his approach did his party any good in the last election. Since then, his government’s core initiatives – toughening criminal justice, a studied indifference to climate change, scrapping the long-gun registry – are hugely unpopular in Quebec.
It might be that the Prime Minister, having won without Quebec last time, looks at the new Commons seats outside the province and thinks he can easily do so again.