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Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon speaks at the opening of a Parti Quebecois national council meeting, on April 13.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

It was election eve in a suburban riding just outside of Montreal when Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon strode toward the ground-floor campaign office. He was feeling confident, and instead of giving an interview to The Globe and Mail journalist waiting outside, he broke into song.

“Guess who’s back, back, back,” he rapped, Eminem-style. “Back again.”

His prediction was premature on that spring day in 2022 – the PQ was not back, not yet. Its candidate lost the long-time party stronghold of Marie-Victorin in a by-election the next day, marking a nadir in the fortunes of the separatist standard-bearer after decades of decline.

Their leader can safely reprise his rap, now, though. The PQ is on its way back to the centre of Quebec politics, with a comfortable lead in the polls that would see the party form a majority government if an election were held today. That has meant renewed talk of a referendum on Quebec independence, which Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon is promising to hold before 2030 if he is elected.

The province’s next general election isn’t until 2026, a political eternity away, and support for separating from Canada remains stagnant. But a resurgent Quebec nationalism, frustration with Ottawa, and the PQ’s youthful, upbeat, rapping leader have put sovereignty back on the agenda.

Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon gave a fiery speech at the party’s congress on April 14, accusing the federal government of planning Quebec’s decline and seeking to “crush those that refuse to assimilate.” In a news conference the following Tuesday, he doubled down, evoking the “deportations, executions and bans on receiving education in French” of Canada’s distant past.

The federal Ministry of Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs declined to comment about a hypothetical referendum but the Prime Minister’s Quebec lieutenant, Pablo Rodriguez, denounced the PQ Leader’s rhetoric. “Mr. Plamondon’s comments are very worrying. Using words like execution and deportation brings an element of violence to our politics that has no place in our society.”

The other provincial parties also called out Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon, as they fight from behind. An online Léger poll of 1,033 potential voters in mid-March found the PQ ahead of the pack with 34-per-cent support, compared with 22 per cent for the governing Coalition Avenir Québec and 14 per cent for the Liberals.

The CAQ, which cruised to re-election in fall 2022, seems to have sagged under the weight of voter fatigue. François Legault has gone from being Canada’s most popular premier to its least popular, pollster Jean-Marc Léger notes.

One reason for the CAQ’s slump is a perception that it has been getting stonewalled by the Trudeau government on issues ranging from health care funding to immigration. In March, Mr. Legault asked for full powers over immigration to Quebec, a request that was rejected, prompting the Premier to threaten his own, issue-specific referendum on the question.

“He’s hit a systematic ‘no’ from the federal government,” Mr. Léger said. That has driven some sovereigntist voters back into the PQ camp, as they grow disillusioned with the CAQ’s “autonomist” approach that emphasizes defending the French language and Quebec’s jurisdiction within Canada, he added.

The sunny personality and boyish looks of Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon helped make the 47-year-old Oxford-educated lawyer a standout performer in the last election. Although his party only won three seats, its worst result in history, it garnered a better-than-expected 15 per cent of the popular vote. The PQ has suffered a long, painful decline that began with the narrow defeat of the 1995 independence referendum and saw the rise of parties with priorities beyond the national unity debate, such as the CAQ and the nominally sovereigntist, leftist Québec solidaire.

Although the PQ has benefited from Mr. Legault’s stumbles, there is a chance that Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon will overplay his hand and wilt under the heightened scrutiny he will now face, Mr. Léger said. Support for Quebec independence has not budged in years, continuing to hover around a third of the population. Although the PQ Leader has promised a quick referendum, his new-found political strength will force voters to contemplate if that is what they really want.

“Now, a third referendum is possible. … Now we find ourselves at the bottom of things,” Mr. Léger said. “It is the pivotal moment, now.”

Although Quebec’s appetite for independence is at a standstill, its sense of belonging to Canada is on the decline, observed Jack Jedwab, president of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies. Just 61 per cent of Quebeckers said they felt “attached” to the country in an online February survey of nearly 1,600 Canadians by Léger, far below the historical norm.

For Mr. St-Pierre Plamondon to channel that into an election victory, however, will require stamina on his part and continued sluggishness from the other parties. The provincial Liberals are currently without a permanent leader, for example, but are due to select one a year before the next general election.

“He’s enjoying a bit of a honeymoon period because François Legault looks tired,” Mr. Jedwab said. “There’s a lot of hype right now and he’s got to ride that for a pretty significant chunk of time.”

Even some fellow sovereigntists are worried the party will try to maintain its momentum by appealing to a limited vision of Quebec identity that excludes newcomers and young people. Invoking the wounds of the past is unlikely to help the party expand beyond its base of older white francophones, said Michel Roche, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi.

“A bird that flies needs a right wing and a left wing,” he said. “That’s why I think the strategy of Paul St-Pierre Plamondon needs a correction.”

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