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Quebec Premier François Legault makes a closing speech at the CAQ national convention in Drummondville, Que., on May 29.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Talk of sovereignty has returned to Quebec politics.

The government of Premier François Legault has made a series of gestures that have raised the periodic question of the province’s place within Canada.

In a speech to his party convention in late May, Mr. Legault turned up the rhetorical temperature with Ottawa, arguing that without expanded powers over immigration, the “Quebec nation” could cease to exist. His minister of justice recently called for a “collective conversation” about whether the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms should apply to Quebec. And the Premier has also recruited two star sovereigntist candidates to run under his banner in the provincial election this fall.

All of this has prompted the Quebec Liberals to say Mr. Legault, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and ardent sovereigntist, has a secret separatist agenda. Marc Tanguay, a Liberal MNA, declared on the floor of the National Assembly earlier this month that the government was angling for a third referendum with the goal of “separation.”

In a later interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Tanguay said the Premier was following long-standing sovereigntist strategy of trying to generate conflict with the federal government to generate a “crisis” that will stir up sentiment in favour of independence.

“He has been governing in a way that provokes the crisis,” said Mr. Tanguay.

Leading figures in the governing Coalition Avenir Québec, a party that contains both federalists and sovereigntists, have denied having any such intention.

Minister of Families Mathieu Lacombe accused Mr. Tanguay of “crying conspiracy.” Bernard Drainville, another former PQ cabinet minister who will run for the party in October’s general election, told reporters that “Quebeckers don’t have an appetite” for a debate about sovereignty.

There are other reasons for the CAQ to emphasize issues of identity and make major demands of the federal government, beyond laying the groundwork for independence, said Marc André Bodet, associate professor of political science at Laval University.

The party comes out of an “autonomist” political tradition that seeks to protect Quebec’s autonomy within the Canadian federation, Prof. Bodet noted – and an election season amid a rocky economy is a fruitful time to present yourself as a protector of Quebec.

But some prominent federalists continue to see gathering signs of danger for national unity under Mr. Legault, despite his party’s disavowals. The Premier’s strong nationalist rhetoric has found expression in two contentious laws around Quebec identity – Bill 21, which bars certain civil servants from wearing visible religious symbols; and Bill 96, which toughens rules around the use of French. Both laws are likely to wind up before the Supreme Court.

If federally appointed judges invalidate or seriously weaken either law, it could lead to a revival of the independence movement, said André Pratte, a former journalist and senator who is currently an adviser to Jean Charest’s campaign for Conservative leader.

“Separatists pray every night that when the Supreme Court rules on Bill 21 and 96, it will create a huge sentiment in favour of independence,” said Mr. Pratte. “I think François Legault is still a separatist, and I think Bernard Drainville is still a separatist. If conditions convince them that they can convince Quebeckers of that, they will try, I’m certain of it.”

The path to another referendum would be long and littered with obstacles, as observers on all sides of the issue agree. Even if Mr. Legault still privately nurtures the dream of Quebec independence, his government includes prominent cabinet ministers with a strong attachment to Canada, and launching the province on a quest for separation would likely shatter his party.

“The CAQ is not a vehicle made for independence,” said Étienne-Alexandre Beauregard, a nationalist author and former political attaché to the Premier. “It’s not a coalition that’s built for that.”

Meanwhile, the political party that has worked the longest to make Quebec independent, the Parti Québécois, is languishing. Former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard recently wondered aloud whether the party was still the right vessel for independence, while a series of polls have put it at below ten per cent in popular support.

The idea of sovereignty continues to stir more hearts than its historic champion does – with surveys in recent years finding that about a third of Quebeckers would vote Yes in a referendum – but the province still finds itself far from the “winning conditions” that the PQ had long sought before putting the question to a vote.

If Mr. Legault tried to rally support for independence after a defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court or a failed negotiation with Ottawa, he would still face the issue of Quebec’s capacity to stand on its own economically, while receiving billions in federal transfer payments every year, said Patrick Déry, a public-policy analyst and deputy editor of the Montreal-based Policy Options.

Those questions would be sharper still because the Premier has built his political career on the promise of ending the old perennial back and forth between federalists and sovereigntists that defined Quebec politics for two generations. Quebeckers would see a hard turn towards separatism as “a breach of contract from Legault,” said Mr. Déry.

Many sovereigntists remain deeply skeptical that Mr. Legault intends to take the province out of Canada. He has lived through two failed referendums and seems to understand how difficult it is to secure a majority in favour of political independence, said Jean-François Lisée, a former PQ leader.

“It’s one thing to have sovereignty in the public debate and it’s a completely different thing to win fifty percent plus one. I believe François Legault has integrated that.”

Whatever the Premier’s intentions, however, his actions and his rhetoric may create a confrontation with the federal government that will be difficult to resolve without a debate about sovereignty, said Mr. Lisée. Mr. Legault’s party convention speech in particular – in which he said Ottawa must give Quebec more control over immigration or else the province risked becoming another “Louisiana,” where French is barely spoken – will prompt hard questions if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals say no, he added.

“François Legault could be the Inspector Clouseau of Quebec independence,” said Mr. Lisée, referring to the bumbling detective in the Pink Panther movies who usually solves the case despite himself.

“If in five years, François Legault is the first prime minister of an independent Quebec, that will be the first Clouseau moment.”

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