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Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-Francois Lisee speaks at a municipalities union summit (UMQ), Sept. 14, 2018, in Quebec City.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

At noontime one day this week, Montreal university student Frédéric Gagnon faced a choice: He could go listen to a campus speech by Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée, or he could go home to have lunch.

He went home to eat. Not that Mr. Gagnon, a 20-year-old international-studies major at the University of Montreal, has no interest in politics. It’s just that he had no appetite for the PQ’s sovereigntist menu.

“Sovereignty is the problem of another generation,” Mr. Gagnon said just outside the auditorium where Mr. Lisée spoke. “We don’t feel it’s urgent or important. Personally, I think it would close Quebec off. I see greater advantage in opening up to the world.”

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The generation of voters like Mr. Gagnon poses a dilemma for Mr. Lisée, whose PQ is polling in distant third place only two weeks from Quebec’s general election. The PQ’s traditional core themes of sovereignty and identity leave millennials indifferent at best, turned off at worst.

Mr. Lisée must know it. He delivered his speech to a half-empty hall, which got emptier as he went on. He spoke for 22 minutes about global warming, taxing the rich, greenhouse-gas emissions, strategic voting and corruption. He took a few swipes at Canada and Justin Trudeau for sport. But not once did he utter the words “sovereignty” or “independence.”

For the first time in decades, none of the major parties is campaigning on pulling Quebec out of the country. Mr. Lisée, who took over as party leader from Pierre Karl Péladeau two years ago, has promised to delay a referendum until at least 2022.

The decision helped Mr. Lisée jettison what had become an electoral albatross for his party. But it has also forced him to justify the party’s relevance, which has proved harder.

The latest poll gives the PQ only 21 per cent support, a distant 13 points behind the leading Coalition Avenir Québec of François Legault. The numbers would ensure the PQ enough seats to safeguard its official party status (early doomsday scenarios projected the party had a single safe seat in Quebec). But it won't change the PQ’s bleaker long-term demographic forecast.

For three decades, the young were the lifeblood of the Parti Québécois. The party and its dream of birthing a nation had a near stranglehold on the youth vote. From the time the PQ was first elected in 1976 until the end of the nineties, two-thirds of first-time voters backed the PQ, says Christian Bourque of the Léger polling firm.

Now, young people are spurning the dream of their parents. An Ipsos survey published Thursday offered a portrait of a new generation that has every reason to give the PQ pause. Only 19 per cent of voters aged 18 to 25 considered themselves sovereigntists. In a list of 14 election issues, these voters placed sovereignty last. Topping the list were education, health and the environment.

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It helps explain why the PQ is third in support among voters aged 18 to 34, who tell pollsters they prefer non-sovereignist choices: Not just the CAQ but even the Liberals, despite its image as the province’s establishment party.

“On language, identity and immigration policies, young people are a lot closer to the multiculturalist approach of the Liberals,” Mr. Bourque said. “The change in only one generation is amazing.”

The rupture with the PQ was most evident with the party’s doomed Charter of Values, which was produced when Mr. Lisée was a minister in the government of Pauline Marois. “The Charter of Values broke the PQ’s legs. Young people aren’t in sync with ethnic nationalism and they don’t see themselves in what the PQ is, and especially since the Charter of Values,” Mr. Bourque said.

It would be a mistake to call the youth federalists. Most, like Mr. Gagnon, consider themselves Quebeckers first. But they don’t see a conflict between that identity and remaining within Canada.

“Independence could be a good thing,” 19-year-old neuroscience student Isabelle Bégin said as she headed into the auditorium to hear Mr. Lisée. “But in some ways we need Canada to support us. And there are more pressing issues than independence, like the environment, lowering the debt and public transit.”

Where does that leave the PQ? On most issues, Mr. Lisée sounds like a social democrat, but the party faces competition for those votes with the left-wing Québec Solidaire. On other issues, like identity, the PQ is sparring for nationalist votes with the CAQ. Both parties call for reducing immigration levels and placing limits on religious headwear for public-service workers.

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Mr. Lisée has been energetic on the campaign trail, touring in a bus whose bright design makes it look like something done up for a trip to Woodstock. He gave a scrappy performance at the Thursday leaders’ debate, and he’s been pulling in devoted supporters – many of them grey-haired – to his events. Thierry Giasson, a political scientist at Laval University, qualifies the PQ campaign as disciplined and even daring.

Still, the PQ’s survival will depend on more than that.

“What the PQ had to do in this campaign is justify its raison d’être and explain why people should take it seriously,” Prof. Giasson says. “It’s an exercise in political rebranding.”

For long-time Péquistes, the vote Oct. 1 presents a quandary. If their priority is ousting the Liberals, their best bet would be to back the front-running CAQ and avoid splitting the anti-Liberal vote, observers say. But voting for the CAQ could also, ultimately, be the PQ’s undoing.

Rémy Trudel, a PQ cabinet minister under premiers Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, says the PQ can always count on a core of supporters “for whom sovereignty is in their DNA.” But he admits the party faces an uphill battle winning the hearts of a new generation.

“My own children say to me, ‘Dad, don’t talk to us about sovereignty,’ " Mr. Trudel said in an interview. “They tell me, ‘The first thing we’re attached to is Quebec. But we’re also attached to Canada. It’s the world that interests us.’ ”

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Mr. Trudel, who teaches at the École nationale d’administration publique in Quebec City, hears the same refrain from his students. “We discuss it. Young people are no longer sovereigntists, they’re globalists,” he said. “For them it’s the planet, the world. Their perception is that the Liberal Party is open on the world, it’s not against immigration, it’s an open party.”

This election marks the first time in Quebec that voters aged 18 to 39 are as numerous as baby boomers. For the PQ, the question is whether they’ll want to get on board the Woodstock bus.

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