It's Groundhog Day in Canada. Just when we thought things were all quiet on the national-unity front, the spectre of another referendum has reared its ugly head. What did we do to deserve this? I'm feeling like Bill Murray's weatherman in the Harold Ramis movie – trapped in some bizarre time warp where it's always snowing, nothing ever changes and there's no way out.
Thank you, PKP!
PKP, as you know by now, is the monogram for Pierre Karl Péladeau. (He was actually named Carl, but he changed the spelling in honour of Karl Marx when he was in university.) He's the most handsome and successful business mogul in Quebec, and now the star candidate for the Parti Québécois. He's everything Pauline Marois is not, including glamorous, super-powerful, business-minded and charismatic. Separation wasn't on the agenda until he showed up, but it is now.
Would you like to chew your arm off? Me too.
In case you're too young or have repressed the memory of the last unity crisis, here's a flashback. It was a national psychodrama that seemed to go on forever. Canada was sucked into a black hole where every other issue disappeared. It was like being in a marriage on the rocks, with Quebec as the miserable, misunderstood, histrionic wife and the rest of Canada as the bewildered, pleading husband. We love you! We really love you! Please stay!, we said. And eventually she decided to stay, but only by the thinnest of margins. The vote was 50.58 per cent to 49.42 per cent. The ROC took a Valium, while Quebec's embittered premier blamed money and the ethnic vote.
Now we're on high alert again. Separation is all PKP wants to talk about. "My devotion to the Parti Québécois is a devotion that rises from my most intimate values – that is to say: to make Quebec a country," he said. Who knew? Anyway, it's obvious that the King of Quebec (as Maclean's once called him) wants to be President of Quebec, and a lot of people wouldn't mind giving him the job.
Just as they did last time, the sovereigntists are spinning fairy tales about how everything will be the same after independence, only much, much better. The borders will be open. The heavy hand of Ottawa will disappear and everyone will be richer. Quebec might even have a seat on the Bank of Canada! A sovereign Quebec will be the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
What's different this time is that the marriage has grown colder. We don't love them any more. We stare at them across a chasm of mutual incomprehension and grievance. But the adults among us know we've got to stay together because breaking up would be even worse. Sometimes, a marriage of convenience is infinitely preferable to divorce.
The ROC is still baffled by the sovereigntists' delusions. Are they really so clueless about the economic consequences of a Yes vote? What do they want that they don't already have? They long ago achieved the goal of "Maîtres chez nous." They have power over almost all their own affairs, to say nothing of the bushel-baskets full of money we send them – about $7.8-billion this year alone.
But secession movements aren't driven by economic interests. They're driven by identity. Identity isn't something in the head. It's in the blood. In Quebec, as The Globe's Konrad Yakabuski has explained, francophone identity is about the events of 1759, which they still refer to as the Conquest. Québécois are bound together by a shared narrative of oppression and exploitation. Outsiders can never understand, appreciate or accept Quebec's special destiny. Writing in Le Devoir recently, one intellectual compared the anglo population of Quebec to white Rhodesians, which may give you a sense of how they feel about us.
The trouble is that even if the PQ can't create the winning conditions for another referendum, they can still create a load of trouble. Take the scenario outlined by André Pratte the other day in the Toronto Star. They could hold a referendum on repatriating even more powers from Ottawa. It would surely pass, and that would drive another wedge between us. If talks with the federal government broke down, or the Constitution got in the way, resentment of the ROC would grow, and independence might present itself as the only answer.
Meantime, much of Quebec's media will not mount a strong dissent. That's because PKP owns it. His media interests, which include Quebec's biggest newspaper, its biggest broadcaster and its biggest cable company, as well as a fleet of celebrity magazines, have been compared to Silvio Berlusconi's. (He doesn't own Radio-Canada or Le Devoir, but they're in his camp, anyway.)
Mr. Péladeau and his glamorous partner, Julie Snyder, presided over this empire for a decade. He swears his media interests are editorially independent and he's put them in a blind trust. Maybe so. But they still belong to him. He has a history of meddling, and people are afraid of him. When he and Ms. Snyder – the province's highest-wattage couple – broke up in January, the coverage throughout Quebec was amazingly respectful, low-key and discreet.
Of course, this all may turn out to be just another scary bedtime story. The PQ might not get its majority next month. The polls say only about 40 per cent of the electorate really cares about sovereignty. And Mr. Péladeau could spell trouble. He is a ruthless, impatient, micromanaging control freak who doesn't like obtrusive questions – not the best temperament for a budding politician.
On the other hand, the sovereigntist generation is getting old. This could be their last kick at the can before they shuffle off the stage. If they get the chance, they'll take it.
As for the rest of us, we'll just sit here and bite our nails, the way we did last time. For us, it's Groundhog Day. Or maybe a zombie movie, with the PQ as the undead. Just when you think you're safe, they rise up from the grave and try to drink your blood. What fun!