This is a confusing time to ask a perennial question of Canadian politics: What does Quebec want? Depending on who you talk to in the Parti Québécois, where runners are massing on the track ahead of a leadership race, it's sovereignty now, sovereignty later, or a shrugging "we'll see."
Quebec's federalist Liberal Premier Philippe Couillard comfortably leads the polls, so should we assume broad support for the current political peace? Maybe. Though Mr. Couillard has repeatedly said the constitutional status quo is not acceptable.
The provincial government often shows its discomfiture with the current order, most recently by demanding a formal say in Senate appointments. The PQ senses an opportunity, and former finance minister Nicolas Marceau and several coauthors addressed it in an open letter last week.
It's seldom providential for politicians to talk strategy in public, but they sketched out the plan: hold a popular consultation in 2021 – in Year Three of a notional PQ government.
It wouldn't be a referendum per se, with a "Yes/No" option, but instead a choice between sovereignty and some form of constitutional renewal; Ottawa, the provinces and their federalist allies in Quebec would thus be pressured to concoct "offers."
The idea is preposterous on many levels, but it has the virtue of being complicated and convoluted. Sovereigntists know they can't win a straight vote for or against remaining in Canada.
It's not the only plan on offer, however. Leadership candidate Jean-François Lisée thinks the party should open its path to power by clearly promising not to hold a referendum for at least one mandate. He has put a big marker at one end of the table, while his former cabinet colleague Martine Ouellet has plated her flag at the opposite extreme: She promises a referendum at the earliest opportunity. The favourites in the race, Véronique Hivon and Alexandre Cloutier, are predictably sticking to bland generalities.
Federalists have always been concerned that the PQ, once relieved of its Pierre Karl Péladeau-shaped anchor, would get its act together and revitalize the independence option. Those fears are so far unfounded. Recent history show the more the PQ debates referendum strategy, the better it is for federalists. Ladies and gentlemen, keep at it.