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john ibbitson

If the Parti Quebecois comes to power after Tuesday's vote, Ottawa and Quebec will once again confront each other over Canada's future.

Neither side will ever have been so weak.

The Conservative government has little purchase in French Canada.

The sovereigntist cause is at its lowest ebb.

And this is a very different country from 1995, when last a referendum was held. Since then, more than 3.7 million people have immigrated to Canada, nearly all of them from developing countries. What do they care about the solitudes? Who is Louis Riel to them?

"Because of immigration, the people do not have the same knowledge that this country was founded by the two great nations," said Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, who was a key adviser to Quebec premier Robert Bourassa in the 1970s.

For Stephen Harper, the challenge might not only lie in containing a separatist government. The challenge might also lie in getting the rest of the country to care.

If the latest polls hold, PQ Leader Pauline Marois is on the cusp of forming a minority government, with either Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Québec or Jean Charest's Liberals becoming the official opposition.

If so, then the two parties could defeat the sovereigntist government at any time, forcing an election or bringing the official opposition to power.

Even if Ms. Marois were able to hang on, she would have to contend with the hardline faction within her own party, which would push for a referendum because many of them are old and running out of time.

Yet support for sovereignty is extremely weak. A CROP poll published Friday reported that only 28 per cent of Quebeckers would vote yes if a referendum were held today.

The constitutional and jurisdictional tussles that once dominated the Quebec-Canada agenda have been buried, along with the long-dead confidence among Quebeckers that the state could transform their society for the better.

"The sense of grievance and the need for government action have changed dramatically," said George Anderson, a former public servant who was a key adviser to both the Trudeau and Chrétien governments on Quebec.

"Today, it's more business as usual."

Nonetheless, Ms. Marois would demand new powers for Quebec over employment insurance, language, culture, communications and immigration, for starters.

She would know that Mr. Harper has a weak hand, with only five Quebec MPs and little support in the province. So what to do?

For Mr. Anderson, the first step would be to recruit more Quebeckers into the government and perhaps even into cabinet, through Senate appointments.

Mr. Harper would just say no to the PQ's most provocative demands. But Tom Flanagan, Mr. Harper's former chief adviser, believes there might also be an opportunity to make deals, so long as any such deals were made available to other provinces.

Mr. Flanagan, now a political scientist at the University of Calgary, has this advice for his old boss: "You don't have to reject everything the PQ suggests. They might have ideas that fit into your own agenda, and if they do, it would be worthwhile to pursue them."

If Quebec wants to take control of Employment Insurance, Alberta and Ontario might welcome similar powers, if constitutional obstacles could be overcome.

But dealing with Quebec alienation from Canada as expressed, once again, through a separatist government would only be the half of it. The other half is dealing with the alienation of the rest of Canada from Quebec.

"The Quebec identity trends away from identity with Canada, and that of Canada away from Quebec," Mr. Anderson observed.

An Ipsos Reid poll published in June reported that 49 per cent of Canadians living outside Quebec "don't really care" if Quebec separates from the country.

Whatever else he does, Mr. Rivest believes Mr. Harper must continue to promote the bilingual nature of Canada.

Appointing unilingual anglophones to senior positions – which Mr. Harper did recently to both the Supreme Court and the office of auditor general – does not help the cause, he said.

Mr. Rivest remains convinced that Quebeckers "share the values of all other Canadians. But they want to stay Quebeckers within Canada. And this is why the separatist movement is so weak."

As for Canada outside Quebec: "If the people can accept that this country is a bilingual and bicultural one, I have no fear for the country."

The question that a PQ victory might unintentionally provoke is whether Canadians outside Quebec still hold to that belief.

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