Pierre Trudeau would have enjoyed Monday’s Quebec election.
Not, mind you, the particulars of the result: The province’s Liberal party, an ally in the federalist foxhole, took a historic beating, scoring less than 30 per cent of the vote for the first time since Confederation.
Nor would the former prime minister have been thrilled by the victorious Coalition Avenir Québec and its leader, François Legault, with their fear-mongering about immigration.
But what he would have appreciated is the fact that, for the first time in two generations, separation wasn’t on the table during the election campaign.
The Parti Québécois, separatism’s traditional standard-bearer, ran in third place during the race and finished fourth. In any case, its leader, Jean-François Lisée, promised not to hold a referendum until after the next election.
The left-wing Québec solidaire are sovereigntists, and finished with 10 seats, but the party’s appeal lies primarily in its social-democratic bent, not its plan to take Quebec out of Canada.
Most important of all, the only parties that had a legitimate chance of forming government – the Liberals and the CAQ – are federalist.
All that combined to deprive this campaign of the existential stakes that have characterized election races between the PQ and the Liberals since the mid-1970s. Those contests never led to the catastrophe of Quebec leaving Canada, but they were a damaging distraction all the same.
The long-standing political duopoly sorted voters into camps: for or against Canada. Federalists voted Liberal and separatists voted PQ, whatever their opinions on other issues. The platform of each party became correspondingly blurry. And since voting was tribal, accountability on matters such as economic management was hard to achieve.
What’s more, the salience of sovereignty as a political issue made for an innutritious intellectual diet. Trudeau the Elder, like many Quebec federalists, believed not only that the sovereigntist movement would be a disaster if it succeeded, but that it was also a slow-moving calamity in the meantime. It stunted the province’s best and brightest with backward-looking fantasies about nationhood, rather than the more practical, worldly concerns that occupy modern societies.
“Let’s open the borders,” he once said. “This people is dying of asphyxiation!”
It’s true that the past couple of decades have seen other parties challenge the Liberal-PQ duopoly, notably the “autonomist” Action démocratique du Québec. But until now, no party has really managed to break Quebec’s stifling political polarization.
The CAQ’s success in breaking this deadlock was helped along, of course, by the decline of the sovereigntist movement. Two years ago, a poll found that 82 per cent of Quebeckers, and about three-quarters of the province’s francophones, said Quebec should stay in Canada.
The federal Bloc Québécois party was the canary in the coalmine for this phenomenon, and it stopped chirping around 2011. The party’s leadership is in constant turmoil, and its 10 MPs in Ottawa are marginalized and divided.
But the prominence given to constitutional debates in Canada writ large has also declined. There was a time when even Quebec Liberals staked their identity on various schemes to wangle greater powers from Ottawa. The Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords animated all of Quebec, federalist and separatist alike.
That heady atmosphere was good news for the two main provincial parties. It meant that politics was about whether and how to belong to Canada – and they could always rally votes on that basis. It also meant neither party was judged closely on its record in trickier matters such as fiscal stewardship and immigration.
The CAQ is poised to change that. No, its preoccupations are not always attractive and show that an obsession with identity, if not nationhood, is still alive and well in Quebec. Look at the party’s plans to test immigrants for “Quebec values” and ban religious symbols for public servants. Look, too, at its failure to break through in the cosmopolitan city of Montreal.
But at least Mr. Legault’s government will be judged, four years from now, on the merits of its policies instead of its stance on the tiresome question, Canada: yes or no?