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Pierre Karl Peladeau’s call for independence damaged Pauline Marois’s PQ campaign. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Pierre Karl Peladeau’s call for independence damaged Pauline Marois’s PQ campaign. (Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Possible PQ defeat may be misread as fatal blow to separatism Add to ...

The possible rebuke of divisive identity politics in the Quebec election campaign will be misread by some as a fatal blow to separatism.

Instead, it should be seen as the death of an enduring myth that Quebeckers can be easily slotted into two tidy categories and led anywhere based solely on whether they want their province to be a country or not.

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Even a surprising Parti Québécois landslide victory on Monday will do little to revive the immediate one-term fortunes of the Quebec independence movement, however. The PQ has laid none of the groundwork and even a majority led by Pauline Marois would have a hard time calling a referendum after a campaign in which she promised not to hold a vote, unless Quebeckers rise up to demand one.

The more likely outcomes – defeat, or even a narrow victory repeating the 2012 PQ minority result, according to recent polls – should provoke soul-searching for a party that gambled heavily on a narrow and traditional interpretation of Québécois identity that made tatters of the party’s left wing and its reputation among Quebec minorities.

A PQ loss “will trigger a time of reflection that will inevitably lead to a change of mentality,” said Jean Dorion, a founding PQ member who still wants Quebec independence but walked away from the party in 2012 over identity politics. The former head of the Société Saint Jean-Baptiste de Montreal wrote a book last fall on how to build a secular-but-inclusive Quebec.

“I think they will be defeated on Monday,” he said. “Generally what doesn’t work leads to a change of direction. This will be one of those moments.”

The Liberal and PQ campaigns are spending the weekend frantically rolling and flying across the province, and each trajectory tells a story on where they believe they are headed.

Ms. Marois returned to Lac-Mégantic, where her swift intervention after last summer’s horrific train blast marked the highlight of her tenure as premier and the start of a long climb in her government’s popularity. She once again exposed a compassionate side buried in one the most negative campaigns in decades.

“I still have a bit of a lump in my throat,” Ms. Marois said in recalling last summer’s tragedy. “I think we took care of the people here. We tried to be very cautious not to exploit this event and that is what we are doing today, doing it in a very sober manner.”

The Liberals, who lost by only four seats in 2012, are hitting more than two dozen ridings – almost all of them currently in the PQ camp.

“We’re going to those places because politics are changing in Quebec,” said Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard. “The political tectonic plates are shifting. I feel like there’s a turning point happening in Quebec politics. Young people are more interested in the values of openness, confidence, inclusion than values that are about mistrust and exclusion as we’ve seen in recent months.”

Whether Quebec is undergoing a fundamental shift remains to be seen. But what is clear is that the most aggressive electoral push based on identity politics since Quebec’s most intense language wars failed to capture popular imagination.

A proposed charter of values that garnered support among francophones for the promise to squeeze displays of religiosity out of the public service turned out to be the least concern of many Quebeckers. Poll after poll showed they wanted nothing to do with identity politics or a referendum and were really worried about the province's economy, public finances and health care system.

Quebeckers who liked the idea of driving religion further from their lives turned away when faced with the political realities behind the plan, and the ignorant camp followers that came with it.

Many Quebeckers who supported the charter discovered a referendum might follow when star candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau raised his fist and said he wanted a country.

“PQ strategists forgot one thing. Many people who are afraid of a scarf or a kippa are also afraid of their shadow,” Mr. Dorion said. “One fist in the air and the word ‘referendum,’ and they bolted.”

Unease built as Quebeckers saw outrageous comments by charter supporters accusing Jews of conspiring to collect a kosher tax and musings that Muslims may some day drive women from swimming pools.

Then they learned a stark reality the PQ went to great lengths to avoid admitting: People, mostly scarf-wearing Muslim women, would lose good jobs as nurses, teachers and daycare workers.

Mr. Dorion, who founded an organization dedicated to promoting independence with a more open spirit to minorities, said the PQ leadership arrogantly pursued a course “contrary to the essential values of our civilization: Respect for evidence, freedom of conscience, and pluralism.”

With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

Follow on Twitter: @Perreaux

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