For more than four decades, the rest of Canada bit its lip upon learning Quebeckers were about to go the polls. An election in Quebec invariably contained the seeds of existential drama for the entire country, as the province’s separatist and federalist forces battled for supremacy.
At the outset of the last campaign in 2014, Ottawa was on high alert as polls predicted a Parti Québécois majority in the April vote. Preparing for the inevitable conflict a majority PQ government would seek to stir up with Ottawa on the path to a third sovereignty referendum consumed then prime minister Stephen Harper’s government. An unpopular Mr. Harper, federalists feared, would be the perfect foil for separatists promising a kinder, gentler independent Quebec.
Of course, Pierre Karl Péladeau’s infamous fist bump only served to puncture the PQ’s bubble. Quebeckers, it turned out, no more wanted a third referendum than they wanted a triple root canal. On election day, the PQ lost 24 seats and hit a 44-year-low in the popular vote.
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Since then, Canada’s once problem child has become its best-behaved. While approval of the proposed Energy East pipeline might have caused a temper tantrum, it’s unlikely Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard would have given voice to it. Mr. Couillard has been the most conciliatory Quebec premier in living memory, endlessly seeking la bonne entente with the rest of Canada.
While Quebec has taken to minding its business, Canada’s other big provinces have started acting up. British Columbia has been a thorn in Ottawa’s side over the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney portrays Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the enemy of the Alberta people and is gearing up for bloody confrontation with Ottawa if he wins next spring’s provincial election.
He’ll have to get in line. Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford has a list of grievances against Mr. Trudeau’s government so long it’s tying the PMO into knots – and he’s only been in power for six weeks. Mr. Ford has already taken Ottawa to court over its proposed carbon tax and blames Mr. Trudeau for the wave of asylum seekers descending on his province.
Just like the PQ governments of yore, one senses that Mr. Ford no more seeks a “deal” with Ottawa than he does with the devil. Rather, he plans to exploit the anti-Trudeau sentiment among his base to continue to foment contempt toward the Prime Minister and all he stands for. Co-operative federalism won’t stand a chance against making Ontario great again.
Needless to say, the eyes of the country are not on Quebec as the province faces an election call as early as Aug. 23. On the eve of this campaign, the PQ is struggling for its very survival, not vying for power. Only a few percentage points in the polls separate it from its far-left rival Québec Solidaire, whose candidate threatens PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée in his own riding.
The real intrigue of this campaign will be whether the centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec can maintain its months-long lead in the polls to win power for the first time under the folksy François Legault. Mr. Legault promises lower taxes, a "values test” for new immigrants and 90-minute-average emergency-room waits. Before Mr. Ford emerged on the national scene, Mr. Legault passed for a populist. Now, he sounds only slightly less conciliatory than Mr. Couillard.
“We’ll request some additional powers from the federal government, but there’s no time frame. It can be in the first mandate or the second mandate,” Mr. Legault told the Montreal Gazette. “But never, never will a CAQ government hold a referendum on the sovereignty of Quebec.”
Mr. Couillard is ready to fight for his political life. By launching the campaign a week earlier than required under the province’s new fixed-election law, the Liberals are seeking to give Mr. Legault more time to mess up before the Oct. 1 vote. But the Liberals will have a hard time portraying the CAQ as the devil Quebeckers don’t know. For now, voters seem to care far more about seeing the backs of the long-governing Liberals than about the CAQ’s supposed hidden agenda.
Either way, this Quebec election campaign is unlikely to give the rest of the country heartburn. Canada’s newly zen province seems to have had it with the drama, for now.