The surprise victory of the Liberal Party of Quebec in last Monday's elections has dealt a powerful blow to the separatist movement. Not only has the Parti Québécois been driven out of power after only 18 months, it received a meagre 25 per cent of the ballots cast. That is the PQ's lowest score since the party's first election, in 1970 (23 per cent).
According to most commentators, one important cause of this crushing defeat is that Quebeckers do not want to live through a third referendum on independence. The outgoing premier, Pauline Marois, tried to reassure voters by repeating that the election was not about independence. Yet she refused to rule out the possibility of holding such a referendum if she was re-elected. That possibility became a probability when media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau announced his candidacy for the PQ and, raising a clenched fist, expressed his firm belief that Quebec should be un pays.
Some in English Canada have concluded that Monday's results spell the death of separatism. Even within sovereigntist ranks, there are a few that have come to that conclusion. "It is becoming clearer that clause 1 of the PQ's program (the commitment to seeking independence) is in a bad way and will be for some time," sociologist Gérard Bouchard told Le Devoir.
For Quebec separatists, Monday's defeat was not the first warning sign. In the last six general elections, the Parti Québécois has not managed more than 35 per cent of the votes. When Ms. Marois won a minority government in 2012, she barely bested Jean Charest's Liberals (32 per cent vs 31 per cent), who were coming out of nine difficult years in power. At the federal level, the once invincible Bloc Québécois was sent packing in 2011, electing only four of the province's 75 MPs.
Another source of concern for separatists is the aging of the cause's supporters. Polling expert Claire Durand has shown that while over 60 per cent of Quebeckers aged 18 to 34 were in favour of independence in the 1980s and 1990s, that proportion has dropped to 40 per cent. Many young Quebeckers now perceive the PQ as a party of elders. When the PQ tried to make its proposed Charter of Quebec Values the centre of its faltering campaign, it called on television star Janette Bertrand, who is 89. Ms. Bertrand's speech only strengthened the impression that support for the charter was based more on prejudice than on a belief that government should be religion-free.
So, has Quebec separatism has been knocked out? As Bob Rae wrote in Tuesday's Globe, "there will always be a body of opinion in Quebec that wants an independent country." Members of the Parti Québécois will do a lot of soul searching in the next few months. Yet they will not recant separation. Rather, as they have done after the 1980 and 1995 referendums, they will look for ways to render their project more relevant – notably to younger voters. And, as always, they will be attentive to circumstances that could blow the sails of independence once again.
That's where the duty of the rest of Canada, the federal government and Quebec federalists begins. First and foremost, we should resist the temptation to put up the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Second, we have to get French-speaking Quebeckers more involved in national institutions, beginning with the Government of Canada. It is not good for either the province or the country that Quebec is so weakly represented in the federal cabinet as it has been in recent times. And finally, we need to constantly and intelligently promote federalism, so that Quebeckers not only reject independence but embrace the Canadian work-in-progress.
Separatism may not be a threat in the near future. But beware of the sleeping dragon. And in the meantime, we should be careful about the mutual indifference that has come to characterize the relationship between Quebec and the Rest of Canada. That indifference could surreptitiously lead to a de facto separation.
André Pratte is Editorial Pages Editor at La Presse in Montreal.