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Déjà vu: Sovereignty and the leader trying to give an old dream new life

Pauline Marois is an unlikely figure to lead the Parti Québécois out of the desert.

Past PQ leaders – René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard – all cut a sophisticated figure. They were articulate and worldly. Though she aspired to lead from the moment she entered politics in 1981, Ms. Marois has never projected the authority of her predecessors. She held every major cabinet job, but never learned English.

Yet, besides arguably Mr. Parizeau, no PQ leader has been as unequivocally separatist as the appliance repairman's daughter, who turns 65 this month. "It's for sovereignty that I got involved in the PQ in the 1970s and it's still for sovereignty that I get up in the morning," Ms. Marois told L'actualité magazine in 2012. "A woman who gives birth to the country, now that would be interesting."

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With a majority government credibly within her sights, Ms. Marois may get her chance. The Quebec election, called this week for April 7, could set the wheels in motion for a vast public consultation on the pros and cons of sovereignty – paralleling a similar initiative that followed the PQ's return to power in 1994 after eight years in opposition.

That effort prepared the terrain for the 1995 referendum, with results that haunt the country still.

Many PQ hardliners would certainly like nothing more than to pursue a timeline similar to the calendar the party followed 20 years ago as it led the country to the brink of break-up. Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet recently mused that there has been a referendum in every "PQ cycle in power" since it first formed a government in 1976. The pressure on Ms. Marois to uphold this tradition will intensify if the PQ wins next month.

Indeed, many Péquistes want a last kick at the can before the generation that founded the PQ (and remains its main base of support) kicks the bucket. The optimists note that support for sovereignty currently hovers in similar territory – around 40 per cent – to where it stood in 1994. Back then, the naysayers were proven wrong when the "Yes" side came to within a whisker of winning barely a year later. They insist that public opinion can be channelled in their favour, especially if the PQ uses the levers of a majority government to promote sovereignty.

What's more, without strong federalist voices in Quebec or Ottawa to make the case for Canada, it could be a better bet this time. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is largely despised in Quebec. Tom Mulcair's Quebec-heavy New Democratic caucus can't afford to alienate sovereigntists. And Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's very surname evokes, for many francophone Quebeckers, their worst memories of betrayal.

Pierre Trudeau promised reconciliation after the 1980 referendum, only to later repatriate the Constitution over Quebec's objections. His son's entry into a referendum campaign would, at the very least, be a double-edged sword for federalists.

The château had to go

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Then again, Ms. Marois is no Lucien Bouchard. Could she possibly succeed where he failed?

Her transition from solid second to PQ leader has been rocky. The daughter of a fourth-grade dropout father and housecleaner mom, she grew up south of Quebec City, became a social worker and married her teenage sweetheart. Though of equally humble origins, he got rich quick as a real-estate developer and the couple soon displayed all the trappings of wealth, building an ostentatious château on an island near Montreal.

Suddenly, Ms. Marois was provincial – but also nouveau riche. And her lifestyle – regal coiffes, jewels and flamboyant outfits – mere quirks for a cabinet minister, became problems for a leader seeking to connect with average voters. Before long, the image makers were dressing Ms. Marois in solid-colour pantsuits. The coiffe got cropped and the château was sold.

But molded by her handlers, the unstoppable Superwoman who had given birth to three of her four children in office and embodied defining public policies such as $5-a-daycare and secular school boards, seemed to lose her personality. She was stiff and scripted. Though she has grown more comfortable as leader, she remains a weak speaker with little presence or ability to stir a crowd.

"She's competent. But she has no charisma," says Anne-Marie Gingras, political science professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. "She's not the best of the leaders, just the least bad among them."

Still, if the PQ's recent surge in the polls has nothing to do with a sudden wave of Maroismania, she deserves full credit for engineering her party's revival. By focusing attention on the PQ's proposed Charter of Values, which would ban public employees from wearing overt religious symbols, Ms. Marois has captured part of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec's clientele and papered over the reasons the PQ had been in decline in the first place – its failure to draw in young and immigrant voters.

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Forcing voters to pick sides regarding its Charter of Values, which enjoys majority support, has also left the opposition parties to split the anti-Charter vote. "To express loud and clear the principles that are dear to us, we will adopt a Charter that affirms the Quebec values of gender equality and secularism," Ms. Marois said at a rally this week. "And to get there," added Dominique Payette, one of her star candidates, "you know we need a majority government."

Changing the conversation

Such talk would have been laughable not long ago. Seven years ago this month, the PQ was relegated to third place in the 2007 election, its popular vote at a 35-year low. It had become the party of a single generation whose decline seemed written in the cards.

Quebec looked to be undergoing a realignment of its party system, with the PQ ceding its status as the "blue" alternative to the provincial Liberals to the upstart Action Démocratique du Québec. The PQ, like the generation that founded it, was everything the ADQ was not: statist, anti-clerical and separatist.

If it was to survive, the PQ needed to reach beyond its aging base to an electorate that harboured none of the resentments of Péquiste elders – or the sixties-era idealism that inspired early secessionists. It especially needed to appeal to ADQ voters who were curiously attracted to the traditional cultural nationalism of an earlier pre-PQ era when the Union Nationale ruled the province.

From the moment she became leader, Ms. Marois set out to court voters of the ADQ and its successor party, the Coalition Avenir Québec. It was a delicate balancing act, catering to both a PQ base with an appetite for sovereignty and state-building and these so-called Caquistes, who prefer smaller government and softer nationalism. Ms. Marois found the answer in her Charter.

The idea of a charter aimed at codifying the separation between church and state was not in itself controversial. With its civil law tradition, Quebec has always differed from the rest of Canada in its preference for written rules to govern the relationship between individuals and the state. But the PQ's charter is not so much an affirmation of secularism as a limit on the freedom of expression of religious minorities. It appeals to Québécois insecurities, casting diversity as a threat to cultural survival.

Many colleagues within the PQ knew this was a slippery slope and warned Ms. Marois against it. They knew it meant dividing Quebeckers and writing off any hope of expanding the party's base beyond old stock francophones. They knew it meant alienating the immigrant communities the party desperately needed to attract if its sovereigntist dream was to outlive the generation that founded it.

Yet, the imperative of short-term survival won out. Just last summer, the PQ had slipped to the mid-twenties in the polls and newly chosen Liberal leader Philippe Couillard looked to be cruising toward victory. The prospect of the PQ finishing again in third place seemed real.

Like the U.S. Republican Party, then, the PQ has chosen to double down a dwindling base (in the PQ's case, of hard and soft francophone nationalists), in the conviction it can secure a few more electoral victories before the demographic tides turn against it. Once the party of young Quebeckers, it now polls highest among voters over 55. Similarly, the Charter has the support of 66 per cent of Quebeckers over 55, but fewer than half of those under 35, according to a CROP poll released this week. The Charter debate has allowed the PQ to eat the CAQ's lunch.

Marianne set for a majority

But winning a majority may be the easy part. Victory will expose the tensions between aging Péquistes raring for a final stab at sovereignty before they die, pragmatists terrified by the fallout of a third losing referendum and a broader electorate that considers sovereignty yesterday's cause.

"There is a sense of urgency among sovereigntists," notes Université de Montréal political scientist Denis Saint-Martin. "Young people aren't as attracted to the project as their grandparents ... It's their last chance. They have demography on their side – but not for much longer."

On the campaign trail, Ms. Marois has played coy, trying to reassure Caquistes cool to the idea of separatism that she won't plunge headfirst into a referendum, without discouraging Péquiste stalwarts. "There is no promise to hold a referendum," she said Thursday, "but neither is there a promise to not hold one."

But if the PQ wins, expect open discussion of referendum strategy to flow like maple syrup. The discussion will largely centre on how to prepare the public for a vote, especially since Quebeckers under 35 have never seriously debated the "national question."

"The difference between 1994-95 and 2014-15 is the degree of public consciousness regarding sovereignty," says Michel Sarra-Bournet, who teaches political science at two Montreal universities. "In 1995, it had been at least 10 years since Quebec's political status had been the first, second and third subject in the news. But in the last 10 years, no one has been talking about it at all."

At the centre of it all is Ms. Marois, the unlikely Marianne leading her people to liberty. The PQ has sought to play up her perseverance by slapping a giant "determined" next to her face on her campaign bus. How determined? If she gets her majority, Quebec and Canada will likely find out soon enough.

Konrad Yakabuski is a columnist with The Globe and Mail.

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