Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Quebecers are looking forward, not back

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"Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," Winston Churchill caustically put it in 1947. In a political career that spanned more than five decades, the two-time British prime minister understood more than most politicians democracy's strengths and flaws, as well as the unpredictable power of the electorate.

In July 1945, despite leading Britain and the Allies to a great and hard-fought victory in the Second World War, Churchill and the Conservatives lost the election to Clement Atlee and the Labour party. It was a stunning defeat for Churchill -- who did become prime minister again in 1951 -- yet British voters believed Atlee and Labour offered the country more progressive policies necessary for the post-war era.

Similarly, on Monday, thousands of voters in Quebec looked forward instead of backwards and handed Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois its worst defeat since the 1970 provincial election, when the party only won seven seats and received 23 per cent of the popular vote.

In this recent election, Quebecers only gave the PQ and Marois, who was defeated in her own riding and is resigning as leader, 25 per cent of the popular vote, a decline of seven points from the last election in 2012 in which the party formed a minority government.

More than that, however, the thrashing of the PQ represents an overwhelming rejection of the independence/sovereignty movement and the narrow and rigid nationalism Marois stood for. Quebecers saw the future of Marois's Quebec, with its discriminatory charter of values, its Quebec-first vision and on the horizon another referendum on sovereignty, despite the former premier's assertions to the contrary -- and by a huge margin said no.

Indeed, as Andrew Coyne points out in the National Post, "fully two-thirds of Quebecers cast their votes for parties that stood flatly and firmly against another referendum on secession."

Instead, they opted for neurosurgeon Philippe Couillard and Liberals who throughout the campaign held up Quebec independence as an economic disaster.

"How does removing Quebecers' Canadian citizenship -- because that is what it means -- improve their standard of living?" he asked. "The answer: It doesn't help Quebecers. It is going to harm Quebec."

You cannot entirely blame Marois for trying to advance her nationalist agenda. Voting behaviour can be fickle and difficult to interpret. For years, Quebecers have been giving the PQ a mixed message. On one hand, in the provincial elections of 1976, 1981, 1994, 1998 and 2012, the PQ has been victorious and formed mostly majority governments. Yet in that same period, Quebecers have also supported, in national elections, pro-federalist parties -- at least until the Bloc Québécois was an option starting in the 1993 election -- and twice rejected the PQ's raison d'être: an independent Quebec (admittedly much of the PQ's electoral success over the years was due as well to discontent with the provincial Liberal party's economic policies and leadership).

In the 1980 referendum, the vote was 60-40 against pursuing "sovereignty-association," though the lengthy question posed was so convoluted any result would have been open to interpretation.

In 1995, the PQ, then led by Jacques Parizeau, came closer to success with a clearer question, and yet still lost by a tiny margin, 50.58 to 49.42 per cent. Echoing the PQ mindset that devised the charter of values, Parizeau famously blamed the loss on "money and ethnic votes," considering approximately 60 per cent of francophones voted yes. His cutting comment was rightly regarded as another example of Québécois intolerance.

Since then, the popularity of independence has declined, which explains Marois's insistence during this campaign she was not planning to pursue it any time soon. Why would Quebecers believe her, however, especially because her star candidate, Pierre Karl Péladeau, the former media CEO, said he was running in the election mainly to promote an independent Quebec? (In another twist, Péladeau won his seat and may now seek the PQ leadership.)

During the 2003 provincial election, for example, the PQ's leader, Bernard Landry, pledged he would hold a third referendum on independence "in 1,000 days." The PQ won 45 seats to the Liberals' 76, and 33 per cent of the popular vote.

In next election in 2007, the PQ made the same mistake. Its leader, André Boisclair, declared he would hold a referendum or "popular consultation" as he called it, "as soon as possible" after he formed a government. In that contest, the PQ came in third place with only 36 seats and 28 per cent of the popular vote. Boisclair quickly resigned as leader and was replaced by Marois.

In the 1960s, during the Quiet Revolution, the political question of the day was "What does Quebec want?" Attempting to resolve this dilemma led to countless royal commissions and studies and occupied decades of gut-wrenching constitutional debate.

As of April 7, 2014, we now finally know the answer to that conundrum. What does Quebec want? The correct reply is: Canada, at least for the foreseeable future.

 

Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2014 A9

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