Sunday, April 13, 2014

On elections and wishful thinking

Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated

Mark Twain

On May 10, 1976, Pierre Elliott Trudeau proclaimed “the end of separatism.” Six months later, the Parti Québécois came to power for the first time. The death of Quebec’s independence movement has been declared many times over the years. By the mid 1980’s the beast of separatism was clearly dead. Lévesque’s sovereignty association referendum had failed. His decision to take what is called the "beau risque" which was basically a deal with Brian Mulroney, the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, to accept an amended version of the 1982 Constitution and give Canadian federalism another chance led to the unraveling of the PQ. Clear skies were ahead for a united Canada… A decade later, we had another referendum which came within an inch of victory.

The recent defeat of the Parti Québécois at the polls after only 19 months in power has led to new proclamations of “the end of separatism.” This time it’s true, it is said, because it’s talk of independence that sank the PQ’s campaign. All the pundits agree that when media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau (aka PKP) joined the PQ as a candidate and raised his fist in the air saying that he wanted to make Quebec a country, the PQ’s poll numbers began to drop. The reason: no one wants another referendum.

A closer look at the poll numbers show that support for the PQ began dropping before PKP’s sovereignist coming out and did not really plunge until about a week after the incident. Why is that? Well, one reason could be that one of Pauline Marois’ campaign promises in 2012 was to introduce fixed election dates. This was to stop governments from calling elections at an opportune moment favorable to the ruling party and basically riding the election out on a single issue. Jean Charest did this in 2008 and 2012. In 2012, Charest was hoping to ride the student protests to another victory but the issue of Liberal corruption could not be buried.

In fact, Marois’ government did manage to pass a bill in June of last year that establishes fixed election dates to be held on the first Monday in October of the fourth calendar year following the dissolution of the National Assembly. Of course a minority government can be taken down by the opposition in a no-confidence vote before that but that's not what happened here. Marois called this election. She claimed she needed a majority government in order to pass her controversial secularism charter.  In reality, she could have gotten over 90 percent of it passed with the support of the CAQ but she insisted on keeping the most controversial parts of this charter intact. Violating her own “fixed election date” law hurt Marois’ credibility.

Polls showed that a majority of Quebecers supported her charter so she decided to ride this issue to a majority government. It didn't work. PKP’s arrival changed the subject and Pauline Marois allowed herself to start musing over the borders and currency of an independent Quebec. Gilles Duceppe added a few thoughts on passports. These statements were ridiculed in the media and Marois’ credibility was further eroded.  The drop in support for the PQ in the polls began to increase. Marois quickly went back to the topic of the charter which probably just reminded people of how cynical it was for her to call an election on this in the first place.

There were other factors like a news story about an anonymous affidavit several days before the election alleging that Marois’ husband may have illegally raised tens of thousands of dollars in political donations for his wife and a last minute promise to cut taxes that was probably believed by no one and simply further eroded her credibility. All of these details are being ignored and we are being sold by the media the narrative that the PQ lost because no one wants another referendum.

Obviously federalists don’t want another referendum but sovereignists don’t want another losing referendum and to be honest a referendum with Pauline Marois as the head of the Yes side would make me extremely nervous. Bringing about the independence of Quebec is a big task and so the people who are proposing to do it and asking Quebecers to join them have to be credible. On this point, Pauline Marois failed. The rejection of the PQ on April 7th was the rejection of a government and that’s all. You would think that after being wrong so many times before, the prophets of doom for Quebec’s independence movement would be a little more cautious with their predictions.

Patriots, Loyalists and fence-sitters

Addressed to future English Canadians
It’s estimated that at the time of the American Revolution the population of the American colonies was divided into three camps. There were the Patriots who were committed to independence, the Loyalists who were loyal to Great Britain and would later become English Canadians and there were the fence-sitters. For years it was widely believed that each camp represented one third of the population. This stems from an estimate made by John Adams in his personal writings in 1815. Historians have since concluded that Adams was referring to American attitudes toward the French Revolution. The current thought is that about 20 percent of the colonists were Loyalists. However, the Patriots, people for whom there was no alternative to independence, were probably no more numerous than the Loyalists. It's the fence-sitters who made up the largest group.

The Americans settled the question on the battlefield in a revolutionary war but had there been a referendum at the time, accompanied with a British campaign of fear with predictions of economic collapse and threats against American territorial integrity, which side would have won? It’s hard to say. Quebec society is split is a similar way. There are the Patriots (sovereignists), Loyalists (federalists) and the fence-sitters. The sovereignists have a far more difficult task on their hands as what they are proposing is something new and uncertain. Federalists have inertia on their side and can simply use fear to keep the fence-sitters in their place. It’s for this reason that credibility is all important for the sovereignist side. Pauline Marois and her approach to sovereignty lacked credibility. That is the real lesson of April 7th. We are still a nation of Patriots, Loyalists and fence-sitters on the independence question and that has not changed. For sovereignists, the struggle continues, as it must, but we've grown accustomed to hearing predictions about our demise.


  1. During the 80s, when people thought separatism was dead, the PQ scored between 39 and 49 percent of the votes. They haven't done that well in any election after 1998. In this election, they got 25%, their worst result since their first election in 1970. Even if you add Québec solidaire votes it only comes to 33%. Separatist parties are at their lowest level of combined support since the movement began.

    1. Just two month ago polls were showing PQ at 40%, QS at 7% and ON at 2%, That's 49% of Quebecers supporting a sovereignist party. So I wouldn't take that 33% to the bank just yet. Things change all the time...

    2. Sure, but what do polls mean when Quebecers change their mind by the time they actually cast their ballot?