03.05.2014 09:21 AM

Behold the issue that will dominate Canadian politics for the next year, and then some

If the separatist Parti Quebecois government calls an election “soon, soon” – and if, as many expect, they win a majority government – strap on your seat belts. We are in for another bumpy ride, Canada.

In recent years, of course, it has been become de rigueur for the commentariat to declare that the separatist movement was “dead.” I’ve never agreed with them. When your politics are entirely about identity, and long-nurtured grievances and humiliations, you never give up.

Separatist longing is unkillable, because logic has nothing to do with the desire for a separate nation.  If it did, we wouldn’t be hearing – once again – about the likelihood of another Quebec referendum.  It is a matter of the heart, not the head.

Politically, the circumstances favour the separatists.  Here are just a few of the reasons why:

  • Statistics Canada notwithstanding, most Canadians and Quebecois do not feel that a robust recovery is underway.  They know, as I wrote in the Sun on the weekend, that they are still only a couple pay cheques away from living on the street. To nervous Quebec voters, Canada does not seem to be thriving any more than Quebec is. Why not give it a try?
  • The great separatist-slayers of the past – Chretien, Trudeau the Senior – have left the scene.  They have been replaced by a passionless, Western anglophone Prime Minister who is reviled in Quebec, a novice Liberal leader who lacks any support off the island of Montreal, and an NDP leader who clearly sympathizes more with sovereignty than federalism. Who, then, will speak for Canada, in the coming confrontation?
  • The political culture/stature of each of the federal political parties has changed.  Conservatives quietly wonder if Canada wouldn’t be better off without Quebec; Liberals have zero – zippo, zilch – strength on the ground in Quebec anymore; the New Democrat caucus is mainly made up of former Bloc and Parti Quebecois supporters, who will not lift a finger to save Canada.  Not good, not any of it.
  • As a Conservative friend told me at lunch this week, it is a fact that Canadians themselves cannot be counted on to rally in support of a united Canada, as they did in 1980 and 1995.  Instead, they can be expected to respond with anger and/or indifference to the sovereignty issue being revisited, yet again.  I do not know if he is right, but he is not wrong when he observes that Harper/Trudeau/Mulcair do not have any of the populist political skills of Trudeau Senior and Chretien to rally average Canadians.
  • All of the symbols of Canada – ranging from things as simple as Canada Post offices to the flag – have been disappearing in Quebec over the years.  Quebeckers, therefore, can’t be condemned for wondering what their federal taxes pay for.  Watch their newscasts: their world does not extend past the Ottawa River. Canada is an illusion, to most of them.

None of this is to say that the separatists are without their own problems.  Marois, in particular, is no populist firebrand like a cane-wielding Lucien Bouchard was.  She is no Levesque.

But politics, like comedy, is all about timing.  And, presently, the timing favours the separatists.

Thus, my prediction: our preoccupation, in the months to come, will not be Crimea or Syria or Iran or the Central African Republic.

It will be Quebec.


  1. Malcolm Jolley says:

    I agree with all in this post, but cling to the flicker(s?) of hope that: 1) at least Justin Trudeau’s position on independence is clear; 2) I think there’s something to the argument in his 2006 quote about it being “an old idea from the 19th century; and 3) he seems to do well in a fight.

    • Warren says:

      Agree on all three. But, as the recent LPC convention showed, they are an anglophone party – even when meeting in Quebec. 90 per cent of the convention was in English; entire discussions were entirely in Engish; the Quebec media barely bothered to show up.

      The signs are not good.

  2. Greg says:

    Agree 100%. Marois may not be a firebrand, but she’s shown herself to be quite canny in her handling of the “values” charter. I don’t think she’ll hold a referendum unless she’s absolutely convinced the separtists will win. Who will speak for Canada?

  3. Michael says:

    I shudder to think of Harper as PM during a referendum. He is from the old Reform Party, whose policy was “Canada love it or leave it”

  4. Richard Besserer says:

    Warren, I hear you—and I’m not looking forward to a majority PQ government—but the world has changed along other dimensions. People pay more attention to the economic costs of independence than they used to, and realizing that being a small fish in a big pond isn’t as great a deal as it sounds. The Scottish National Party’s bid for independence is foundering on monetary policy, of all things (they want to stay in the pound zone but London has no plans to let Edinburgh have a say in monetary policy decisions).

    Demographics are also not on the PQ’s side. By the end of this decade Marois’ generation who brought the PQ to power are going to start dying off. People who remember Levesque and have much experience in government are getting thinner on the ground.

    Marois’ PQ seems to have fallen back on a particularly nasty form of “national affirmation,” blowing racial and religious dog-whistles to keep an increasingly rural and suburban Franco-Quebecois base on-side without much thought about who’s going to cover their RRQ cheques.

    I’ve been hearing this my whole life—literally. I was born in 1976 outside Canada, and my first inkling that Quebec existed was from a National Geographic article about Quebec that mentioned the rise of the PQ and the possible rise of a new nation, or something (I haven’t read the article in years). It wasn’t till I was a bit bigger that I was informed that Quebec hadn’t become independent after all!

    If Quebec’s not gone by now, it’s not going anywhere. It’s just not going to be as pleasant a place to live for non-francophones and non-Catholics while Marois and her generation are still calling the shots in Quebec public life.

    • Mark says:

      Agree. Monetary policy is important, and be sure that Quebec leaders will realize they will lose any input they have now over monetary policy (unless they adopt their own currency, whichn is a non starter), and Quebec will have to incur about 25 percent of the national debt. People will think long and hard about that.

  5. Mark says:

    You make some good arguments about the malaise and passionless leadership in the ROC, Warren. However, even though I’m cetain my 1993 Master’s thesis on this issue has been gathering dust in the UVIC and other archives since, I maintain that Quebecers and their political parties want nothing more than a recognition that Quebec is different and requires some kind of accommodation (yes, perhaps “special status”) within Canada. As a former Montrealer, I sure hope so.

    • Mark says:

      I should have added that this has been the case in the past, notwithstanding the outward sovereigntist mantle of at least former variations of the Parti Quebecois.

  6. Ryan Spinney says:

    Tom Mulcair has made a career of fighting the seperatists, during both referundums, during his time as an MNA, and as leader of the NDP.

    It was the NDP that dealt the biggest blow ever to the bloc, in no small part thanks to Mulcair, as Jack’s Quebec lt.

    Mulcair has already antipated a PQ wins means a referundum and is preparing for that fight.

    As for the NDP Quebec cacus anyone who was a seperatist moved to the bloc over Mulcair’s Unity bill. Even Alaxander Boultrice, who was a member of QS has come out and said he loves Canada. Also remember those NDP MPs with a connection to QS did so for its leftwing politics not for its support of Soveriegnty, there are many federalists in QS.

    As for who would rally Canadians to fight for national unity it’d be Mulcair. After all it’d be hard for him to become Prime Minister of Canada if most of his cacus’ seat including his own up and left the country, so he has the greatest reason to fight for National Unity, his entire ambitions depend on it, and as such it won’t be hard to rally large numbers of Dippers to the cause from across Canada. To lose Quebec is to lose Canada to Harper.

    • Lance says:

      The NDP didn’t deal them any blow; they provided them with a nice wooden horse. I wonder if Priam will bother to look inside.

    • sezme says:

      Well said, Ryan. I don’t share Warren’s cynicism about Mulcair, and I think that while the Rest of Canada has certainly had separatism/referendum fatigue, if push comes to shove, the troops will rally.

      Also, in spite of the negatives of going to Russia, the Winter Olympics are one of our best shows of national pride and unity, though that probably gets spun differently in separatist circles.

    • Ottlib says:

      I would hope that if the time comes the three parties can set aside petty partisan concerns and work together to keep Canada united.

  7. WestGuy says:

    If that’s the case then maybe it’s time to change tactics.
    Instead of bribing Quebeckers to stay in Canada, why not start formulating what Quebeckers would give up if they leave. Can’t use the Canadian Dollar, can’t use Canadian passports, all federal assets (military bases, facilities) relocated, CN Head office moved, end of any interprovincial agreements (Churchill Falls), immediate end to equalization payments (certainly Ontario would love to see some of that money diverted to it), no inclusion territory under First Nation land claim (“if Canada is divisible, then so too is Quebec”) and Quebec would inherit its share of the national debt.

  8. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    When SHE called it, she lost it.

  9. Nic Coivert says:

    Hey, Harper knows that if Quebec leaves he can be Prime Minister forever, plus he gets to remake what’s left of the country in his own political image, yikes. Don’t expect Harper to expend any political capital on keeping the country together. He would much prefer a weak Federation of semi-autonomous State-provinces. What better way to destroy public health-care, the CBC, Canada Post or anything else that smacks of humanitarian socialism or shall I just say Liberalism?

  10. ian turnbull says:

    I would like to know what percentage of Canadians living outside Quebec either a. don’t care or b. would prefer Quebec to just leave.

    I am sure it is higher than it was 20 years ago and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a majority.

    I am not sure how that will impact things. However whatever federal party leader wishing to become Captain Canada will have to take that into consideration. Being good at pleading with Quebecors to stay may not be a characteristic the rest of the country wants in the next Captain Canada.

  11. david ray says:

    “depression is the collapse of illusion in the face of reality.”
    -Wilhelm Reich.

    stay tuned

  12. Tiger says:

    I’m skeptical that Quebec will actually leave — I don’t believe the population wants it, period.

    I’m very ready to believe that we’ll get another good scare if there’s a third referendum.

    But it’s now overtly the ethnic principle that underlies it.

  13. Peter Jay says:

    Wow, the populist skills of Chretien?! That’s some serious spin.

    The country went to the brink while he was PM. 50.6% is a failure, especially for a Quebec PM in his own province.

    • Warren says:

      He saved the country in 1980, idiot.

      • Fabian says:

        Exactly! And he steadily eroded the # of Bloq MP’s with each successive majority he won as prime minister.

      • Peter Jay says:

        Whoa there – did I touch a nerve? He was PM in 1995. Where the buck stops. 50.6% and he was so deeply unpopular in francophone Quebec that he was minimized from the No campaign. Hardly populist skills.

  14. TimL says:

    Remove Quebec and you have an almost permanent Conservative majority in the ROC and no more bilingual cereal boxes…I’m sure its VERY appealing to a lot of Tory voters. Its probably the same story in the UK, where the loss of all the Labour MPs Scotland produces would be a big boost to the Conservative Party there.
    It would kill Canada’a Olympic medal count though.

  15. Ryan Spinney says:

    I remember reading that according to a senior tory that the cpcs plan to avert the break up of Canada in the avent of a referundum is turn to Tom Mulcair to wave the country. Look some Tories want Quebec to break off, others don’t and Harper doesn’t want his legacy to be the end of Canada. So he will if things get bad enough turn to Tom.

    Tom Mulcair is the only hope Canada has if the PQ wins. Which to be far is not a given. After all no referundum has ever occurred under a Prime Minister who was not a Liberal.

  16. Lance says:

    Tommy Mulcair says he and the NDP will be on the front line fighting the seperatists. That is fine for HIM to say that……but can he REALLY speak for everyone else in the Quebec wing (which is mostly everyone) of his party?

  17. Paul Brennan says:

    geez it will devastate our olympic team…

  18. ottlib says:

    I think we are getting ahead of ourselves here. The PQ have not won a majority government yet and there is no guarantee that they will.

    Yes, yes, the polls are currently looking good for them but recent history with polls and elections should give us pause.

    As well, I am certain many of us have been observing politics long enough to realize that the issue that dominates the debate at the beginning of an election campaign is very often not the one that becomes the ballot question at the end of the campaign. The Value Charter is what is buoying the PQ right now but can they sustain it as the hot button issue for a month or so? That is an open question especially when their two opponents have not actually come out against the Charter in forceful fashion potentially reducing its effectiveness as a wedge issue.

    On all of the other issues that might be discussed during a campaign the PQ’s record is not very impressive and they are particularly vulnerable on the economy and government finances.

    As well, the notion of whether she will call a referendum will become an issue. The appetite for such a referendum has been the lowest its been for decades and it is not showing signs of significantly increasing, despite the PQ’s rise in the polls. Alot of Quebecers really do not want to go through another divisive debate about Quebec’s place in Canada and any party in Quebec that brings up the spectre of it will probably suffer for it. For the past several elections the PQ opponents have tried to pin them down about their plans for a referendum if they were to win power and in all cases the PQ had to back away from the idea of a referendum because it was costing them support.

    Finally, Madame Marois is not exactly tearing it up with the electorate. She has no charisma, no real vision. Her only advantage there is the leaders of the other parties are not tearing it up either. She really reminds me of Stephen Harper in 2008.

  19. Bill says:

    I haven’t had time to read the entire comment trail, but wanted to point out that I spend a ton of time in QC – in the Laurentians, mainly, but also driving up to Quebec City and have visited many parts of the province in recent years – it’s not just blue and white (and not as much as it has been in the past) – more Canadian flags are flying and there are fewer people tearing them up or calling them, as Landry once did, “des bouts de chiffon rouge.” When Quebeckers were winning medal after medal in Sochi a few weeks ago, they were happy to be representing the maple leaf. This alone isn’t enough to steer clear of another sovereignty fight, but I think you’re underestimating Canadians’ pragmatism and patriotism on both sides of the Ottawa river.

    • Stephen J says:

      So, Bill, how’s the skiing in the Laurentians and St. Anne? Wanna bet that more than a few Quebec Olympic athletes will be campaigning for Marois’ PQ? How do you think that will resonate amongst the poutine gourmands. I suspect that Marois will tell les quebecois that this election will be the turning point for Quebec, and if she doesn’t get a majority government vote, that will eliminate all talk about sovereignty for Quebec for several generations. Young Quebecers will be actively campaigning for Marois because they are the vanguard of Quebec independence.

      • Ronald O'Dowd says:

        Stephen J,

        Look more closely. It isn’t called a lead balloon for nothing. She has debranded it as sovereignty — her first big mistake — and now she will watch as her vote siphons away under the watchful eye of independence. She shot her whole foot off with that tactical folly. May her sound judgment continue throughout the campaign.

  20. Stephen J says:

    Okay, let’s assume that the Marois PQ wins a majority on April 7th, what next? Marois will begin the process of planning for greater sovereignty of Quebec from the Rest of Canada (RoC). I say “greater sovereignty” because a sudden split is not viable for Quebec nor Canada; so it must be a gradual process with many steps to final sovereignty.

    The first and easiest step is for Quebec to collect all taxation and then send a portion to Ottawa for services of common interest. IOW, there would be no federal taxation powers in Quebec. It becomes a simple bookkeeping issue that is quite viable. From there, other issues will emerge and they will be settled mutually, one at a time. And it would kick off the separation process that could last for a decade or more.

    Now comes the October 2015 federal election and the interests of Quebec will be primary for Marois. Who can she look to to advance the interests of Quebec in Ottawa? Mulcair? No! Trudeau? No! Harper? Yes!!

    Simply by electing Conservative MPs in Quebec, Marois will have political leverage within a Harper Conservative majority government. She will want Quebec MPs to be in the Canadian government to convey her message to Harper and the RoC. NDP and Liberal MPs would be useless because they will be impotently sitting in the Opposition benches.

    Since her primary objective will be to acquire all taxing powers within Quebec, she must have Conservative government support and only Quebec Conservative MPs can make that happen. BTW, did I hear that the Conservatives were considering abandoning the GST altogether by reducing it to 0%……and shifting the healthcare costs on to the provinces? That would be a perfect scenario for Marois Quebec aspirations and a start for no federal taxation in Quebec.

    However if the NDP and Liberals merged to present one unified voice in Canada, that might turn the tables against the Conservatives and the Marois PQ separatists. Of course, the burning question is can the flames of separatism ever be extinguished? Warren apparently thinks not.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      Stephen J,

      Harper is nobody’s fool. Count on him to gummy up her works until hell freezes over if they are both there. That’s sure as hell what I would do. Go on the offense — give absolutely no quarter and not only defend but also enhance federal powers across the board in Quebec. Fight for this goddamned country or else do nothing and lose it.

  21. Tim says:

    I don’t think there’s much appetite for another round of this nonsense in any part of Canada including Quebec. Canada has grown up and moved on. Any politician who tries to shove this stale bullshit down our throats is in for a most unpleasant surprise.

  22. e.a.f. says:

    your essays says it all. thank you.

    since the last referedum the population of Canada has also changed. They may not see the need for Quebec as those who came before them.

    Well it could be said leaving Canada is just another way of getting rid of Harper. I have always loved my country and my country includs Quebec. Harper hasn’t done much for federalism and has done much for some to think they might be better off without him. leaving Canada is one way of doing it. Of course, give First Nations have a lot of land in Quebec, will they too be willing to leave or will they want to maintain their soverinty.

    It certainly isn’t going to be boring. If quebec does leave Canada before the next federal election, voters elsewhere in Canada may well blame Harper for it.

  23. David says:

    Maybe it’s time to tell Quebec to take the knife from our throat, go independent and put the knife to your own throat. If the chattering intelligentsia says it will be bad for Canada, it will be worse of all for Quebec. I love my Country but i can no longer live with the blackmail of a petulant child.

    Simple facts are it will likely lead to a civil war, it usually does. It opens Pandora’s Box. But keeping the Country in perpetual suspended animation for fear of offending Separatists isn’t working either. The Issue must be settled, decisively, once and for all. Then we can all get on with living our lives and building our Country with willing participants and citizens.

    Else we are consigned to permanent stagnation of effort, thought, and nation building with a crying child in tow demanding more and more candy.

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