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Lysiane Gagnon

Lysiane Gagnon


Quebec’s vicarious referendum Add to ...

There’s always been an air of Scotland in Montreal, where a large part of the cityscape was built by businessmen of Scottish origin. Montreal’s oldest and best department store, Ogilvy’s, still features a bagpipe-playing musician in a kilt who tours the store every day at noon. And a good number of Quebeckers are living on Scottish time these days, anxiously awaiting the Sept. 18 referendum on sovereignty, which might spell the end of the United Kingdom as we know it.

The excitement reached a peak last weekend, when, for the first time, a survey showed that the Yes side might be poised to win. It’s a rather pathetic admission of weakness when a vote taken on another continent becomes the last hope for Quebec nationalists, who believe that a Scottish Yes could reignite the province’s own sovereigntist flames.

Former Parti Québécois cabinet minister Bernard Drainville, who intends to run for the party leadership, spent some time in Scotland last summer and came back impressed with the determination of the Scots and the clarity of their referendum question. The trip served as a launching pad for Mr. Drainville’s preleadership campaign. Buoyed by the latest Scottish poll results, a group of sovereigntist associations have scheduled a conference in Montreal for Sept. 20 and 21, in the expectation that the Scottish referendum results will provide them with a renewed platform.

Since the PQ’s humiliating defeat last April, and, more importantly, since a series of studies have indicated that sovereignty is a dying idea that appeals only to the province’s older generation, sovereigntists have desperately been looking for new arguments to bolster their cause. A Yes victory in Scotland might convince some reluctant Quebeckers that independence is feasible, since there are indeed quite a few similarities between both secessionist movements. There is one major difference, though: Scotland is rich with oil, and its bid for separation is mostly driven by economic arguments, thus attracting people of various origins. In Quebec, one of the poorest partners of the Canadian federation, the sovereigntist movement is mostly rooted in culture and identity, which makes it far less ethnically inclusive.

The Scottish campaign bears striking resemblances to Quebec’s 1995 campaign. In both, the No side was largely ahead until the final days of the campaign, when polls showed the Yes side emerging as a possible winner. In Britain, this dramatic development has pushed Prime Minister David Cameron (like Jean Chrétien before him) to offer desperate, last-minute devolutions of power – a package that was predictably deemed “too little, too late” for the Yes forces.

The themes have been quite similar, too, from which currency the new country would use to its links with supranational institutions. Another common point is that the artists have tended to be in favour of independence. “It’s easier to come out as a homosexual than to come out in favour of the No,” Scottish writer Denise Mina quipped in an interview with Le Monde.

Whatever happens on Sept. 18, at least this is certain: Scotland’s referendum will serve as a model for Quebec and Canada. If there is another referendum, Quebec sovereigntists will have to ask a clear, non-ambiguous question, but the federalists will be compelled to accept a low threshold for victory (50 per cent plus one) instead of clinging to the concept of a “clear majority.” After all, what was good for London and Edinburgh should be good for Ottawa and Quebec City.

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