Before he became Leader of the Parti Québécois last year, Jean-François Lisée spent two decades telling previous PQ chiefs how to win. From Jacques Parizeau through to Pauline Marois, Mr. Lisée was constantly pitching his latest vote-getting ruse whether or not it was sought. His advice often backfired, but Mr. Lisée somehow always managed to dazzle Péquistes with his fast talk.
Before Mr. Lisée held court as the PQ's resident know-it-all, that role fell to Claude Morin. Alternately revered and reviled among Péquistes – especially the latter after it was revealed in 1992 that he had spent years doing double-duty as an RCMP informant – Mr. Morin was the brain behind the PQ's 1974 move to promise a referendum on sovereignty-association. Before then, the party had insisted that a mere PQ election victory was sufficient for Quebec to become a country. Without embracing Mr. Morin's étapiste approach, the PQ might never have won power for the first time in 1976.
Now, only days before Mr. Lisée faces a confidence vote at a major policy convention, the 88-year-old Mr. Morin has offered explosive advice to the struggling PQ leader: Ditch the separatist talk and go full bore on identity politics. Noting that Quebeckers have consistently rejected the idea of a "rupture with Canada," Mr. Morin insisted this week in Le Devoir that they also oppose the 1982 Constitution's entrenchment of multiculturalism as a fundamental facet of the Canadian federation. The PQ's future, if it has one, lies in identity politics.
"It is hard to see, faced with its opponents, another subject as relevant that it could campaign on," Mr. Morin wrote. "With no referendum close, it would be of little logic to prioritize sovereignty as an immediate electoral issue."
While Mr. Morin's observations might seem obvious to any outsider, they nevertheless remain fighting words within the PQ itself. Nothing rankles the base more than the suggestion that the party's very reason for being – to make Quebec an independent country – is a losing electoral proposition. And the last thing Mr. Lisée needs is a bitter confrontation between party purists and tacticians at this weekend's convention that would force him to choose sides.
While it is unlikely PQ delegates would ditch Mr. Lisée with a year or less to go before the next election, an internal fight over sovereignty would sap party morale even more than current poll numbers have. Since Mr. Lisée replaced Pierre Karl Péladeau, the PQ has plummeted eight-percentage points in the benchmark Léger Marketing survey (to 22 per cent) and risks losing as many as half of its current 28 seats in the next election.
While he has promised not to hold a referendum on sovereignty during the first mandate of a future PQ government – a position delegates will vote to accept or reject on the weekend – Mr. Lisée has also vowed to keep talking about why Quebec needs to become independent. A sovereignty referendum would follow the PQ's re-election to second term, in 2022, according to Mr. Lisée's timeline.
This week, the PQ released the first of seven of a promised "50 + 1" "capsules" outlining its arguments for independence. (The 50 + 1 number is a nod to the threshold sovereigntists consider necessary for a Yes win in a future referendum – 50 per cent of the votes plus one – though that likely falls short of the "clear" victory the Supreme Court of Canada has deemed necessary to begin negotiations with the rest of Canada.) One of the "capsules" released this week seizes on the recent surge of asylum seekers who have crossed the Canadian border illegally into the province from the United States to insist that an independent Quebec would control its own borders.
The leaders of Quebec's two other sovereigntist parties – Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale – joined together to denounce Mr. Lisée's "stigmatization of asylum seekers in order to win votes." They further warned that his designation of those crossing the border as "Justin Trudeau's guests" hurts the separatist cause by further alienating the province's growing immigrant population. But Mr. Lisée has abandoned all hope of building an inclusive sovereigntist coalition with QS and Option Nationale and seems bent on playing to the old-guard separatists within the PQ for whom language and ethnicity remain all-consuming obsessions.
Electorally speaking, this likely means the loss of at least one more former PQ stronghold in Montreal (the fourth) to the progressive Québec Solidaire and the loss of PQ seats outside Montreal to the newly ascendant Coalition Avenir Québec, which practises identity politics with a folksier and less vindictive slant. Expect a desperate Mr. Lisée to come up with a new ruse by election day.