Skip to main content

The election campaign that officially begins this week in Quebec promises to be better for what we won’t hear much about.

More so than at the outset of any provincial race there since the 1970s, the “national question” – whether Quebec should separate from the rest of Canada – does not appear to be a major fault line.

The Parti Québécois is trailing a distant third in the polls; even if it claws its way back into contention, its leader, Jean-François Lisée, has repeatedly resolved not to hold a sovereignty referendum until 2023 at the very earliest. Philippe Couillard’s governing Liberals may still try to wield the issue as a cudgel, as in every campaign for decades, but it’s unlikely to carry much heft since François Legault – leader of the polls-leading Coalition Avenir Québéc – has embraced federalism.

The question now, with the sovereignty debate no longer sucking up so much oxygen, is what takes its place.

The grimmest possible answer would be one divisive nationalist fixation replacing another. Mr. Legault has flirted with anti-immigrant voters, including by calling for immigrants to take a “values test” to qualify for citizenship. He has mostly toned it down of late, perhaps mindful of how disastrously the PQ’s odious “Charter of Values” played last election, but the CAQ’s agenda calls for shrinking Quebec’s annual immigration quota (from 50,000 to 40,000) and spending more on immigrant integration – the latter potentially serving as fodder for hard-line assimilationists in its ranks.

It will be much more of a service to Quebec’s discourse if Mr. Legault, a former business executive, focuses on presenting himself as the manager needed to modernize the province’s economy – and if that leads to a battle of ideas with Mr. Couillard, who can boast of robust recent growth, about what that modernization involves. And likewise, if there proves enough daylight between the parties on matters of core spending priorities for debate on everything from health-care reform to the state of Quebec’s generous daycare program.

In other words, Quebec has the chance for the sort of campaign, focused on issues of practical concern, that other provinces take for granted. Seizing it would make the most of an overdue political realignment.

Interact with The Globe