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Ken Dryden is an author, former Liberal member of Parliament and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It is hard to imagine how Pauline Marois could have run a worse campaign. Just a few weeks ago, her Parti Québécois was on its way to a majority victory and a third referendum. Quebec voters' minds were focused on the past, where she wanted them – on the provincial Liberals' record in government, kept fresh by daily testimony at the Charbonneau commission. On her government's corruption-busting efforts, and on its widely supported Charter of Quebec Values.

Then, on March 9, the election became about the future.

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Pierre Karl Péladeau, with Ms. Marois at his side, announced he would be a candidate for the PQ in the riding of Saint-Jérôme.

Mr. Péladeau is a superstar – mega-rich, handsome, famous. He has experience leading the vast enterprise begun by his father. He has earned his economic bona fides as one of the biggest players in the Quebec economy. Can Quebeckers ever really be maîtres chez nous when their currency, banking system and debt are so closely tied to Canada's? Can they ever truly go it alone? By standing there confidently, Mr. Péladeau was offering an answer to what has seemed the biggest obstacle to Quebec's independence – doubt. He was saying Yes.

But suddenly, the cart was before the horse.

A provincial election highlights sovereignty's weakness as an issue. For some Quebeckers, sovereignty is far more important than anything else. They will vote for the PQ. For many others, sovereignty matters, but so do the economy, social policy, clean government and other issues. They may vote for the PQ, or they may vote for the CAQ, or even the Liberals.

A provincial referendum highlights the strength of sovereignty as a question. A referendum is not mostly about the PQ, CAQ or Liberals, nor mostly about the economy or social policy. For many Quebeckers, sovereignty doesn't matter enough to vote for the PQ in an election, but it matters to them more than non-sovereignty, so they might vote Yes in a referendum.

In Quebec, if you make an election about sovereignty, you might not win. If you make a referendum about sovereignty, you might.

It wasn't that Mr. Péladeau let the referendum cat out of the bag on March 9. Quebeckers knew what a PQ majority would mean. But that would be down the road, after much to-ing and fro-ing, after many years, perhaps not at all. Mr. Péladeau, however, didn't give up the rest of his life just to be an MNA, a cabinet minister, even a premier. His was a nation-making decision. Money is money. Immortality is immeasurably more.

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But the election's focus on the referendum highlighted one other thing.

I teach a course at McGill University, and this year also at the University of Calgary, called "Making the Future." We look at different aspects of the way we live – workplace, family, religion, health and health care, diversity, public engagement, politics and so on – the past and present of each. We challenge students to imagine the future they want for themselves and for their country for the next 60 years of their lives.

Because of where the course is being taught this year, two of the themes are Alberta and Quebec. Coincidentally, the Quebec week landed in the midst of the election campaign. I invited a young Montreal lawyer and activist, Rémi Bourget, to talk about the future he wants to live in Quebec and to help make in the decades to come.

Mr. Bourget spoke of his parents and grandparents, and their stories about the dark years of long-time Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis,. but also about how Duplessis "stood up to Ottawa," which even his opponents admired. Mr. Bourget talked about Rocket Richard, how he too had "stood up" for himself and for his team – and to those who watched him, for his people against an English-speaking National Hockey League and its English-speaking president, Clarence Campbell. Later, there were René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard. They too had "stood up."

"Standing up" was not Mr. Bourget's intended theme, but his story kept returning there. And yet he saw no purpose in another referendum.

Once, it was enough for a PQ leader to dream of sovereignty. Just being maîtres chez nous, out from under the thumb of the English, elicited an imagination's worth of possibilities, allowing everyone to fill in their own blanks as to what that would mean. Now, as evidenced by the diminished depth of support for sovereignty, it is less obvious. The question isn't just sovereignty or not. It is sovereignty for what reason? To be what? To do what? What is this Quebec? What are we standing up for?

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Once Mr. Péladeau entered the campaign and the election became irrevocably about sovereignty, the PQ was done. It had no answer to that question.

In the referendums of 1980 and 1995, the "Quebec story" was powerful and obvious. Sovereigntists knew what they were standing up for. The "Canada story," with its "better the devil you know" focus, was less exciting. Now, the two sides are on more equal footing. Quebeckers want to know: Sovereignty for what? Federalism for what? What Canada? What Quebec?

The sovereignty debate is not over. It has only moved to a different phase.

Ken Dryden played goal for the Montreal Canadiens from 1971 to 1979, and for Team Canada in the 1972 Summit Series.

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