October 6, 2015


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Dan Lett


Sovereignty: the bogeyman in the closet

Quebec elections have nothing to do with sovereignty. Or, they have everything to do with sovereignty.

This has been the dynamic tension in Quebec politics for generations, and it's playing out again as Quebecers prepare to vote in early April to choose a new government.

Like so many who have gone before her, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is trying to lead a party committed to sovereignty through an election in which she says sovereignty is not an issue. And like those predecessors, she is having trouble navigating the campaign while carrying this traditional Québécois dichotomy.

Is Quebec sovereignty an issue or not? Marois says it is not, and her campaign platform has only a vague pledge to hold a referendum at "the time the government deemed to be appropriate." She has yet to explain what that means and how a government she leads would determine the right time.

However, despite frequent assurances sovereignty is not an issue, Marois has continued to muse about the possible terms of independence.

Marois noted a variety of studies published during the last quarter century have outlined ways Quebec could be "independent" and still exist in partnership with Canada. For example, Marois said Quebec could continue to use the Canadian dollar, allow Quebecers to carry Canadian passports and enjoy free trade in people, goods and services with other provinces.

But remember, sovereignty is not an election issue.

Are voters in Quebec buying any of Marois' patter? To some extent, the answer is yes.

This is essentially the patter Quebec voters are used to getting from their sovereigntist politicians. Don't sweat the big stuff, and have faith the rest of the country, even after being rebuffed in a referendum, will not want a complete divorce. That there is enough affinity to ensure a close association with the rest of Canada.

Of course, there is plenty of evidence the whole idea of a mutually agreed upon separation with no lingering hostilities is really just the bait on a trap. That once support for sovereignty has been won in a referendum, a sovereigntist government could seek a more definite, formal separation from Canada. This is a strategy that has been debated for at least the last 20 years in Quebec.

It started in 1994, when Parti Québécois leader Jacques Parizeau became premier with a majority mandate after promising to hold a referendum. Parizeau was true to his word, scheduling a referendum for October 1995.

That summer, a few months before the referendum, then La Presse bureau chief Chantal Hebert (now with the Toronto Star) wrote a story about a meeting between Parizeau and European diplomats in which he said if he could get Quebecers to vote yes on any kind of sovereignty question, he would have them trapped "like lobsters in a pot of boiling water."

Over the years, the story has been retold using the term "lobster trap," which also captures Parizeau's strategy, even if it is not entirely accurate.

Although she is unlikely to utter an equally indiscreet admission, it is fairly well accepted Marois is playing the same game as her predecessor.

One of the most important footnotes to the lobster-pot tale is that, despite being published just a few months before the referendum took place, it did not dampen enthusiasm among the electorate for some form of sovereignty.

As history clearly shows, the 1995 referendum was a neck-and-neck race down to the wire. On referendum night, the fate of the federation was measured in tenths of a percentage point, with the No campaign ultimately coming out on top by just one point.

Where does this leave Marois? When she dropped the writ for this election, the PQ held a slight lead over her opposition, principally the Liberals. In the first 10 days of campaigning, the PQ is now running second to a Liberal party that is showing some momentum.

However, Marois still has a few cards up her sleeve. Last week, she announced media magnate Pierre Péladeau was now a PQ candidate. The effect of Péladeau's candidacy is still being gauged. One theory has it that this amplifies the sovereigntist strategy in Marois' campaign, and further alienates a majority of Quebecers who do not wish to do the Parizeau lobster-pot tango.

A competing theory is that Péladeau, one of the most powerful men in Quebec, will lend legitimacy and even sexiness to a relatively dormant political movement. Either way, this election will see Quebecers once again focusing intently on sovereignty, likely asking themselves before voting whether they can envision an existence beyond the current federation.

Even though it's not an election issue.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 0

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