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CAQ candidate Shirley Dorismond celebrates with Quebec Premier Francois Legault after winning the Marie-Victorin by-election in Longueuil, Que., on April 11.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

When the government of François Legault stormed a Parti Québécois stronghold in an upset by-election victory Monday night, it was a devastating blow for the storied sovereigntist party.

The PQ’s defeat in Marie-Victorin, a suburban Montreal-area riding it has held almost continuously since 1981, represents yet another humbling step in a long decline for the province’s independence movement and its long-time standard-bearer.

The result will also put wind in the sails of the Coalition Avenir Québec ahead of the provincial election in October. The party can thank its candidate Shirley Dorismond, a nurse, former union leader and electoral newcomer, for the boost.

But in the long run, it may be the loss of star PQ candidate Pierre Nantel, a former NDP MP for the area, that most marks the political history of Quebec. With this latest setback, the party of René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard finds itself struggling for life.

“It’s a disaster for the PQ, that’s for sure,” said the pollster and political analyst Jean-Marc Léger.

The party now consistently sits in fifth place in opinion polls. For example, it received just 7 per cent of voting intentions among 1,200 respondents in a Mainstreet Research poll from mid-March (with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points). The political projection website QC125 has the PQ winning just a single seat in the province’s general election this fall.

It has been a painful fall from grace for a movement that brought Quebec sovereignty into the political mainstream in the 1970s and held two referendums on independence, one in 1980 and one in 1995. For 40 years, the party traded power back and forth with the federalist Liberals, as Quebec debated its place within Canada.

Péquistes can blame their subsequent freefall on the declining salience of their defining issue, Quebec independence. Some observers date the party’s fading fortunes to the narrow failure of the 1995 referendum. The PQ’s big-tent coalition of leftists and conservatives had always been held together by the dream of a sovereign country.

“At the point where sovereignty is no longer in play, those parts start to come apart,” Mr. Léger said.

Young people were also abandoning the movement. While 35 per cent of Quebeckers still believe in independence, that’s true for less than a quarter of Quebec youth, according to a November, 2021, Leger survey with a 1,023 sample size and a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

In 2019, months after the PQ suffered a historically crushing defeat in the election that brought François Legault to power, its then-26-year-old representative for Marie-Victorin, Catherine Fournier, quit the party to sit as an independent. She called her former political home a “withering tree” that had “lost a lot of its relevance.”

Since the PQ’s last brief time in power, as a minority government from 2012 to 2014, much of its support has splintered. The social-justice-oriented Québec solidaire has picked up traditional left-wing sovereigntists in Montreal and college towns such as Sherbrooke.

Even more damaging, Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec has stolen the votes of more conservative nationalists by standing up for “Quebec values” and the French language, while defending Quebec’s jurisdiction against Ottawa.

The Parti Québécois, meanwhile, has cycled through ineffectual leaders, including the media tycoon Pierre Karl Péladeau and the sovereigntist strategist and intellectual Jean-François Lisée, neither of whom were able to stop the party’s slide.

Its current chief, the young, Oxford-educated lawyer Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, has fared no better. He doesn’t yet have a seat in the National Assembly after winning the leadership in 2020 and has struggled to make his voice heard from the margins. A March Leger poll of 1,013 people about the provincial party leaders found that only 3 per cent thought he would make the best premier (with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points).

The PQ fought desperately to hold on in Marie-Victorin, bringing star MNAs like Pascal Bérubé to knock on doors as a counterweight to the CAQ cabinet ministers who have campaigned there. The candidate himself, Mr. Nantel, cancelled an interview with The Globe and Mail because he said the race was so close that he needed to spend more time getting out the vote.

On Monday afternoon at party headquarters in Longueuil, Mr. Plamondon, at least, was in a playful mood. Imitating the reaction to a possible PQ victory, he began rapping the lyrics of the Eminem song Without Me (“Guess who’s back, back again?”).

Although the traditional standard-bearer of sovereignty has wilted, support for the idea itself is still relatively strong among Quebeckers. Frédéric Bastien, a historian and former PQ leadership candidate, noted that the party has read its own obituary before. Pierre Trudeau declared “the end of separatism” in 1976, just months before René Lévesque brought a separatist government to power for the first time.

But on the ground in Marie-Victorin, some voters were indifferent to the PQ’s survival. Chloé Leclerc said she wanted Quebec to keep discussing sovereignty in the long run, but that it wasn’t “the issue we need to be talking about right now.”

With the rise of the global far-right, she said, there are more important problems facing society. She cast her ballot for Québec solidaire, which is in favour of independence but gives the subject less prominence relative to housing affordability and the environment.

If the Parti Québécois disappeared, Ms. Leclerc said, she didn’t think it would be “the end of the world.”

“It might be time to reinvent ourselves.”

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