Some people never learn. That includes Pierre Karl Péladeau, the front-runner in the Parti Québécois leadership race, who is now the latest high-profile member of his party to play footsie with ethnic nationalism. Others have tried before him, and they have all been burned badly by an issue that is the third rail of postreferendum Quebec politics. Now Mr. Péladeau risks going the way of his predecessors.
Mr. Péladeau's statement came on Wednesday during a PQ leadership debate when he said that his party, and the separatist movement that it represents, are "losing a riding a year" because of immigration and changing demographics.
"Who's responsible for the immigrants who come and settle in Quebec?" he asked rhetorically. "It's the federal government. It's true it's a shared jurisdiction, but they swear allegiance to the Queen.
"So we don't have 25 years before us. It's now that we have to get to work. It's right now that we have to ask Quebeckers the question and make all the proper efforts to convince them."
Singling out immigrants as federally brainwashed obstacles to independence is absurd and dangerous. It suggests that the only way to be a Quebecker is to vote for separatism; to vote otherwise is to stand against the will of "true" Quebeckers. That is simply unacceptable – which is why Mr. Péladeau apologized on his Facebook page less than 24 hours later.
If he had any doubt about that, he could have looked at the fate of the person he hopes to replace as PQ leader. Pauline Marois, the former premier, bet all her cards in the 2014 general election on a Charter of Quebec Values that sought to highlight ethnic differences and manufacture animosity against minorities. She lost the election, and her riding, in a rout.
Mme. Marois's antecedent was Jacques Parizeau, who famously blamed the defeat of the Yes side in the 1995 referendum on "money and ethnic votes." He resigned as premier and leader of the PQ the next day.
Since 1995, Quebeckers have consistently rejected attempts to promote independence through ethnic nationalism. If there is an obstacle to Quebec independence, it is modern francophone voters who refuse to buy into a movement that tries to bury its economic illogic beneath appeals to discrimination. In a way, Mr. Péladeau was right – demographics is definitely an issue for a party that has been outgrown by a more sophisticated electorate.