Someone check the almanac to see if that proverbially rare celestial occurrence, the blue moon, is scheduled to appear this month. For the first time in my recollection I find myself pleased that the Grits have scored an electoral victory. Don’t get me wrong, this pleasure does not arise out of a newfound sense of appreciation for the merits and virtues of the Liberal Party. It comes rather from relief over the fact that it means that the country will be spared, at least for the immediate future, another round of the Quebec separatism crisis.
This past Monday the province of Quebec held an early provincial election. A little over a year and a half ago, the Liberals had lost control of the province in the last election. The separatist Parti Québécois had won a minority government and the decision to take the province back to the polls early was a bid to convert that minority government into a majority after they failed to gain support for their budget from the opposition parties. In a sense, that is what happened except that the majority government was given to Philippe Couillard’s Liberals instead of to the PQ of Pauline Marois. The Grits won seventy seats in the Quebec assembly, seven more than is needed to form a majority, and well over double the thirty that were returned to the PQ, whose leader lost her own seat in the constituency of Charlevoix–Côte-de-Beaupré and stepped down as leader of her party even while conceding the election to Couillard. This is the lowest number of seats the separatist party has received since the 1980s.
What caused this drastic overturn of the fortunes of the Parti Québécois?
The answer is, in a single word, separatism.
Shortly after the election was called, media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau announced that he would run as a candidate for the Parti Québécois. He further declared that it was the issue of separatism that was drawing him into the race and he wanted “to make Quebec a country”. This put party leader Marois, who presumably would have preferred to have continued to downplay her party’s contentious raison d’être, into something of a bind. Forced to run a campaign with the separatism issue front and centre, the PQ lost and lost big.
Péladeau’s true motivations are known only to himself and God. He does not have an established history as a separatist. Apart from this one issue his views are not notably in line with those of his party. He is said to have blamed his business troubles of a few years back on English Canada and particularly the Royal Bank which could explain a conversion to the sovereignist cause. Yet surely he could not have been unaware that if there is one thing that English and French Canadians, the people of Quebec and the rest of Canada, agree upon more than anything else is that we are all sick to death of politicians raising the issue of the separation of Quebec.
The spectre of Quebec separatism loomed large over the land when I was growing up. It was a movement that was born in the 1960s while Quebec was undergoing the sweeping changes that are often called the “Quiet Revolution.” The ancien régime, the old Catholic order that had been the support base of the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis, largely disappeared and was replaced by a new order of moral permissiveness, secularism, and socialism. Out of the New Quebec that replaced the Old, arose both federalists and separatists. The federalists were conscripted by the national Liberal Party, which was looking to create a new, multicultural, Canada that rejected the traditions of both English and French Canada. The separatist movement divided into a militant and a moderate wing. The militant wing formed the terrorist organization the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) whereas the relatively moderate wing organized what eventually became the Parti Québécois.
It was the terrorist wing of the separatist movement that first attracted the attention of the nation. Throughout the 1960s, the FLQ waged a campaign of bombing, kidnapping and murder that culminated in the October 1970 kidnappings of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Vice-Premier Pierre Laporte. The government that had to deal with this crisis was the Liberal government headed by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the most prominent of the New Quebec federalists.
With the October crisis, the FLQ reached the zenith of their terrorist campaign and subsequently more or less disappeared. The Parti Quebecois, on the other hand, under the charismatic leadership of René Lévesque rose in popularity. In 1976 they won their first provincial election and in 1980 called the first referendum over separating from Canada. They lost the referendum by a fairly large margin. Forty percent voted in favour of separation, or rather in favour of giving the PQ a mandate to negotiate a new sovereignty association with the rest of Canada which is how the question was actually put to them, but sixty percent voted against it.
Shortly after the failure of the referendum, however, the separatists found a new way to threaten the unity of Confederation, with unintended help from their federalist enemy Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau wanted the British North America Act, by which Canada had been established as a country in 1867, to be patriated to Canada so that we could amend our own constitution. To do so required that the federal government and the provincial governments come to an agreement about the amendment process and so Trudeau entered into negotiations with the provincial governments about this. Ultimately, all provinces except one, Lévesque’s Quebec, ratified the Constitution Act when it passed both the British and Canadian Parliaments in 1982.
This created a constitutional crisis which was dumped on the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney that took power in 1984. With the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, and the Charlottetown Accord of 1992, Mulroney tried to convince Quebec to ratify the Constitution Act provincially, but each time failed to do so, despite the federalist Liberal Party of Robert Bourassa being in power during this period. In the fall of 1994, the Parti Quebecois, now lead by Jacques Parizeau, came to power. In 1995, they called a second referendum on Quebec sovereignty. Once again they did not get the results they desired, but the margin by which they lost was reduced to a fraction of what it had been in 1980.
Despite the fact that this would suggest an increase in popular support for separation it was at this point that the separatist movement began to lose steam. The two referendums had been very divisive within Quebec and had generated a great deal of ill-will between her and the rest of Canada while failing to gain enough support for separation to form a majority. Quebeckers, regardless of which way they voted in the referendum, indicated in the polls at the time that however it turned out, they did not want a third one. The polls continued to indicate this just before this election, and in handing the Parti Quebecois its biggest defeat in decades once the issue of separatism was raised, the people of Quebec could not have made the message any clearer.
Therefore Canadians owe M. Péladeau our gratitude. By raising the issue of sovereignty in this way, he has sank his own party in the polls, perhaps irrevocably, spared us another bitter round of the Quebec sovereignty debate, and shown English and French Canadians that in not wanting to go through this all over again we are more united than we thought.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca