"Je ne suis pas séparatiste, mais."
This is the first French expression I learned as an adult. Apart from the useless school French we were obliged to study, I was totally illiterate in one of the official languages of Canada. I would have been described by a francophone Quebecer as an anglophone. But I did meet many fellow Canadian Québécois attending NDP national conventions in Quebec. Although the NDP had yet to win a federal seat in the province, there was always an active and energetic contingent of Quebec delegates attending national conventions. And, to a remarkable degree, a good portion of the convention agendas were devoted to discussing Quebec politics.
The Quebec delegates were articulate and very vocal. They were usually unilingual French-speaking, and when they took the microphone they almost invariably began their comments with the statement, "Je ne suis pas séparatiste, mais." The statement was the preamble to almost every Quebec delegate speech and hence was repeated so often I learned it by rote.
What the Quebec delegates were saying was "I am not a separatist, but." Ever since that time, and as a watcher of Quebec politics between those years and the present time, I have never underestimated the strength and durability of Quebec nationalist feeling.
The recent election results in Quebec have jubilantly been hailed in the press as a resounding defeat for separatism. Indeed, many of the pundits have likened the election of the Liberals and the defeat of the Parti Québécois to an obituary for Quebec sovereignty. After the dust is settled and a more careful analysis takes place, it would appear the death notices are a bit premature, and the funeral, like the referendum, should be postponed.
The Liberals, who are identified as the federalist or anti-separatist, party received about 41 per cent of the popular vote. The other parties, all of which lean to nationalism, garnered 59 per cent of the popular vote.
It would appear the nationalist vote was substantially higher than the federalist vote. Nationalism in Quebec has been defeated because it was divided, not because it was out-voted.
Furthermore, one cannot discount the nationalist element in the Liberal Party. When Robert Bourassa was the Liberal premier of Quebec, his government pursued the Meech Lake accord as its price for stemming the separatist tide in Quebec. What the Quebec francophones may be saying in the 2014 election is "Je ne suis pas séparatiste, mais."
We must not jump to the conclusion that sovereignty in Quebec is finished. When Jean Chrétien won majority governments in Canada, he was lined up against two Conservative parties. When the Conservatives united, they won the election.
This lesson will not be lost on the Quebec nationalists. They are capable of counting. Furthermore, they can submerge their other differences. The Parti Québécois lost much nationalist support when, under René Lévesque, they became identified with being a social democratic movement. The breakaway and the setting up of competing nationalist groups was based on economic differences rather than differences with regard to sovereignty.
The Coalition for Quebec's Future is an openly nationalist, right-of-centre party that simply says it will not hold a referendum for 10 years. It has not eschewed sovereignty.
It may be the election results, rather than tolling a death knell for sovereignty, are a blessing in disguise. The Parti Québécois will obviously have to reassess its position. Fortuitously, it will be looking for new leadership.
Also fortuitously, it has elected a highly prominent new member of the assembly with obvious leadership qualities and a more right-wing approach. The next election is only four years away. In the interim, there is time for the Quebec nationalists to submerge their differences so a strong united movement will be available for the contest. If this happens, sovereignty will be far from dead.
Sidney Green is a Winnipeg lawyer
and former NDP cabinet minister.