The Parti Québécois is launching a new sovereignty offensive, saying that the social and financial risks for the province are too high for it to remain in Canada.
Many of the arguments are similar to those the PQ has used in previous campaigns to promote sovereignty. What is different this time, according to Premier Pauline Marois, is that the federal government's economic and social policies have further isolated Quebec within the federation, creating havoc for the province's economy.
"We have often been placed on the defensive, particularly since the 1995 referendum [on sovereignty]. Those days are over. As of now, we are going on the offensive," Ms. Marois told 400 party delegates gathered for a weekend meeting.
Canada, she insisted, poses a "risk" to Quebec's French language, its social values and its ability to speak freely on the international stage. A combination of costly overlapping services, opposing views with Ottawa on issues such as gun control and the total disregard by the Harper government for Quebec's unemployed and economic needs has demonstrated sovereignty to be more urgent than ever, the PQ Leader insisted. "To remain a part of Canada is the assurance that Quebec will be perpetually confronted with failures," Ms. Marois said.
With a debt of about a $1-million, the party has little money to launch a massive advertising campaign. Ms. Marois said the PQ will instead rely heavily on social media and the party's 90,000 members to reach out to Quebeckers.
A Léger Marketing poll conducted Feb. 5-6 for the Montreal newspapers Le Devoir and The Gazette placed support for sovereignty in the province at 37 per cent, a six-point drop from a similar survey conducted a year ago.
In order to boost support, the PQ campaign will argue that reforming Canadian federalism is a lost cause. While other provinces such as Ontario reap the benefits of federalism, Quebec's interests are being ignored, leaving political independence as the only alternative, the PQ will say.
"That leaves only two possible choices: Canada as it is or sovereignty," Ms. Marois said. "What this means is that by staying in Canada, it is a guarantee that Quebec will never be fully respected."
Bernard Drainville, the Minister responsible for Democratic Institutions, went as far as to say that tougher eligibility requirements imposed by Ottawa for seasonal workers to receive employment insurance benefits was a deliberate attack by Ottawa on Quebec. This was being done in order to force the province's workers to move west and take jobs in the Alberta oil sands.
The party will argue that federalism has become a drag on the province's economy forcing Quebec into a permanent "have-not" status. According to the PQ, Quebec was being kept in a state of dependency, receiving approximately $7-billion a year in equalization payments from Ottawa. Meanwhile, sovereignty, according to Ms. Marois, would be a "profitable, exciting, inspiring" endeavour.
"Ottawa granted a $20-billion contract to build ships in Atlantic Canada … I challenge the federal government to invest $20-billion in the electrification of our transports and I guarantee you that within a few years we would be rich enough that we wouldn't need equalization payments," Ms. Marois told cheering PQ delegates.
While the party unleashes its offensive, the PQ minority government remains at a standstill on its so-called sovereigntist-governance agenda, which is aimed at seeking more powers from Ottawa over areas such as culture or the employment insurance plan.
"We are working on our sovereigntist-governance plan. We will deploy our project in the weeks ahead," Ms. Marois said during a news conference, without saying precisely when.
On Monday, Quebec Labour Minister Agnes Maltais will meet with Diane Finley, the federal Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, to pursue Quebec demands for changes to the employment insurance reform, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper said last week that Ottawa wouldn't budge.
The PQ government will have an even more urgent problem to deal with in two weeks when it will hold a summit on the future of universities. Tuition fees and funding will be at the heart of the debate.
Universities say they need more money. The government has refused, insisting it must reach a zero deficit in 2014 before it can consider university demands. Meanwhile, student groups, which went on strike last year demanding a freeze on tuition fees, aren't backing down. The more militant group, called Assé, even wants to abolish fees altogether. The Marois government will meet with the group on Monday. But it has said the government can't afford to abolish tuition fees.
Ms. Marois has also wouldn't accept a freeze, proposing instead the indexation of tuition fees. "Indexation equals a tuition freeze," Ms. Marois said after the party's youth wing was brought back into line for demanding a "firm" freeze on tuition fees.
Martine Desjardins, president of the Quebec Federation of University Students, refused to compromise, saying that students will accept nothing less than a freeze on tuition fees.
"Indexation is not a freeze," Ms. Desjardins said on her Twitter site on Sunday. "Indexation is an increase."
Ms. Marois suggested that other proposals including lesser surcharges or increased student bursaries will be submitted at the summit to help alleviate the financial burden of higher tuition fees.