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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

(Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

JEFFREY SIMPSON

Quebeckers want power, not independence Add to ...

The Bloc Québécois lost its leader and most of its seats in the last election. The Parti Québécois lies in disarray, feuding internally and showing last in public opinion surveys. Secessionists retain a core support of about a quarter of Quebeckers, but they can’t expand much beyond that core.

The reasons for secessionist somnolence are easy to fathom when you examine the latest poll from CROP, arguably Quebec’s most esteemed pollster, even if the poll was done for a federalist think tank, the Federal Idea.

According to CROP, 71 per cent of Quebeckers think the sovereignty debate is “outdated,” up from 58 per cent last year. Only 25 per cent want to withdraw from Canada and create an “independent” country, which is why secessionists always propose various links with Canada after independence.

Since 70 per cent think independence won’t be achieved, it stands to reason that all but the committed secessionists would think it a waste of time to natter on about something that won’t happen.

Secessionists have spent four decades blasting away at the federal system, calling it a “shipwreck,” a “straitjacket,” a “centralized” system that frustrates Quebec. And yet, 63 per cent of Quebeckers believe the federal system has more “advantages” than “disadvantages” for Quebec.

That figure is even more astonishing given that the nominally federalist government of Premier Jean Charest criticizes Ottawa and seldom defends the federal system, while, in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is incapable of expressing any inspiring vision of federalism. In addition, there are very few strong federalist voices in the body politic of Quebec.

Secessionists are always talking up Quebec and talking down the advantages of being Canadian. This trash talk has been going on for four decades, but, according to CROP, 76 per cent of Quebeckers are “very or somewhat proud” of being Canadian. Eighty-three per cent are proud of being Quebeckers. Only 5 per cent of Quebeckers aren’t proud of being Canadian.

There remains a longing in certain Quebec circles to reopen constitutional talks to get the province to agree to the 1982 Canadian Constitution. Legally, as the Supreme Court has ruled, Quebec is part of the Constitution and bound by it; politically, debate still swirls about the legitimacy of what happened when Quebec’s secessionist government of the day refused to sign the new deal.

Almost 70 per cent of CROP respondents think it’s important to reopen constitutional negotiations to correct that situation, although an astonishing 80 per cent think patriation was a good idea, and 88 per cent agree with adding a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the brainchild of Pierre Trudeau.

What Quebeckers continue to want is more power from Ottawa. Whether other provinces get more power, too, or whether federal power flows only to Quebec is immaterial.

It’s the policy of the PQ, if elected, to demand whole new powers for Quebec, stopping short of independence. Unless matters change drastically, the PQ won’t get the chance.

A party not yet even formed led by a former PQ minister, François Legault, is leading in public opinion polls, a kind of “none of the above” option that sends a message to both the incumbent Liberals and the PQ. Central to his appeal is a pledge not to talk about the Constitution and secession for a decade. Asked if there should be a moratorium on constitutional debate – long a parlour game in Quebec – an amazing 77 per cent of CROP respondents said yes.

Mr. Legault is apparently on to something. He offers change without disruption in a province that stunningly broke with tradition and voted strongly for the New Democrats in May’s federal election. There are now two serious contenders for the NDP leadership with excellent French: Thomas Mulcair and Brian Topp.

Mr. Legault wants to attack Quebec’s debt and shake up its public services and the health-care and education sectors. His popularity might sink when he outlines the details of what he has in mind. But his moratorium on constitutional chatter hits the bull’s eye.

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