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A radical shift: why have Quebec sovereigntists become so keen on Canada?

LUCIEN BOUCHARD'S SPEECH OF THIS PAST February 16th, in which he announced that he no longer expects to see a sovereign Quebec in his lifetime, shook the Quebec political world. The leading sovereigntist of his generation, the near victor of the 1995 referendum, the last leader of the Parti Quebecois to win an election, had effectively declared that the dream of Quebec independence was over. Bouchard was immediately attacked by PQ leader Pauline Marois and former premier Bernard Landry as a "mother-in-law" who had "lost his marbles"; but Bouchard's position is neither eccentric nor idiosyncratic and in fact merely describes a situation in which Marois, Landry, Gilles Duceppe and other leading sovereigntists are complicit.

Indeed, within the last 14 months, two major political events had already signalled a radical shift in the direction of Quebec nationalism--especially among sovereigntists. First, there was the three-way compact of December 2008, which gave birth to a parliamentary coalition among the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois. Second, there was the unanimous decision by the PQ to pursue a strategy of "targeted referendums" seeking, one by one, expanded powers for Quebec. Together, these events have shown that, even among sovereigntists, Quebec's future is today being imagined within Canada, a development I would like to call a "nationalism of accommodation."

A Coalition of Values

On the surface, the parliamentary coalition of 2008 was prompted by tactics. All three opposition parties are opposed to Stephen Harper and his political philosophy; therefore they should all seek to overthrow it. That logic holds for the Liberals and the NDP, but what about the Bloc? How could a party dedicated to Quebec's independence commit itself to support other, anti-independence parties?

Some explained the Bloc's decision as a choice of lesser evils. Quebec's values, they argued, are less endangered by the Liberals than by the Conservatives. Yet the Bloc also gave the impression that the Liberals represent an acceptable alternative--indeed, an alternative so much more acceptable that the Bloc could lift them into power without consulting the electorate. By such logic, however, why should Quebeckers, in the next election, not vote for the Liberals directly? How can a sovereigntist party effectively endorse the Liberals, a party that symbolizes unilateral repatriation, the blocking of Meech Lake, the Clarity Act, the denial of Quebec's territorial integrity and so much else? Clearly the lesser evil hypothesis is inadequate; there is more to such an endorsement than meets the eye.

A New Phase in Quebec Nationalism?

By framing the Bloc's support for a governing coalition in terms of social values (equal opportunity, social justice, moderate state intervention, labour rights, an autonomous Canadian foreign policy, etc.), Gilles Duceppe held out the hope not of national reconciliation but at least of rapprochement. After 15 years of frustration, rancour and cliche-ridden apparatchik rhetoric, the Bloc, a sovereigntist party, largely with the backing of its grassroots and the people of Quebec, found it not only possible but actually preferable to begin a long-term dialogue with the rest of Canada--starting with the Liberals, its greatest enemy. The haste with which Michael Ignatieff nixed such outreach goes to show how little interest he and his advisors have in the Quebec question, at least for now. In itself, however, the Bloc's coalition support signaled a new phase in Quebec nationalism, coming as it did on the heels of another major shift in sovereigntist policy: the endorsement of targeted referendums.

The Logic of Renewal

The Parti Quebecois's new targeted referendum policy--whereby Quebeckers would be asked to approve the reallocation of particular powers from Ottawa to Quebec City, the cession, for instance, of budgetary control over culture and communication--is not, in fact, new. When I was a young political aide attending Jacques Parizeau's Cabinet meetings, the concept was already being whispered, and not merely in cafes and think tanks: from the pages of L'Action nationale to Bernard Landry's Sovereignty and Progress movement, it proved an attractive option. But the objection was always the same: targeted referendums are fundamentally different from referendums on Quebec's independence, since they seek to reform Canada, not dismantle it.

In fact, the quest for further powers via targeted referendums is strikingly similar to the old concept of asymmetric federalism supported since the 1950s by the Dominican Georges-Henri Levesque, by progressivist liberals such as Lester Pearson and by Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, among many other intellectuals and politicians. PQ leader Pauline Marois herself put it best: "The Parti Quebecois is looking to redefine the legislative sphere we share with Ottawa." There you have it: today the Parti Quebecois takes its lead from Claude Ryan's "beige book" rather than from Rene Levesque's "white book" on sovereignty-association. Unanimously, without any real debate, and without prior consultation with their members, all the riding association presidents endorsed the Marois plan. The PQ soul has changed.

The New Challenge

Of course, change does not happen overnight. The perpetual fuite par en avant undertaken by sovereigntists since the last referendum could still last some time. And yet Bouchard has articulated the awkward question that only gets more awkward with each passing day: What are we supposed to do if, having believed so passionately in independence, we now feel that we will never live to see it happen? Are we supposed to suppress such a feeling, come what may, and keep on blindly fighting lost battles? Are we supposed to stay home, locked in tight behind a logic of silence and political abstinence, hoping that somehow the wind miraculously shifts? Or should we live out our love of Quebec in some new way? And, if yes, how?

Unable to make Quebec an independent country, the PQ is today gambling on making it a strong province within Canada. The BQ and the PQ alike will deny it to the last gasp, but they have entered, more or less consciously, into a new era of economic, social and constitutional accommodation with Canada. Consequently, those who genuinely seek to reform Canada will quickly ask themselves if the PQ is the right space in which to take up this challenge. By contrast, those Quebeckers who continue to desire an independent country will ask themselves if the PQ is still the political vehicle that really suits them.

Metamorphosis of the Quebec Question?

I do not believe in the end of history. A national destiny is never complete. But we are obliged to acknowledge that Quebec nationalism has, in the past several years, entered a new phase: the phase of accommodation. I firmly believe that the liberation of a people comes to pass in reaction to an oppressive situation. Political parties are merely the reflection of their society. And yet, if Quebeckers have already chosen the path of accommodation by a considerable majority, that is perhaps because their relationship with Canada has evolved considerably and they no longer feel colonized or oppressed. In that sense, the Quiet Revolution has, today, finally been fulfilled.

To be sure, a nationalism of accommodation does not mean a blissful and complacent acceptance of an unchangeable Canada. Besides, the appetite for accommodation and renewal will not last long if Quebeckers sense that it is a one-way street. But Quebec has entered a new era. It remains to be seen if the rest of Canada will join us.

Jean-Frangois Simard is a professor of social sciences and holds the Senghor Chair in Francophone Studies at the Universite du Quebec en Outaouais. He is a former minister in the Parti Quebecois government of Bernard Landry. This article was translated from French by Jack Mitchell.
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Title Annotation:IS THE PARTY OVER?
Author:Simard, Jean-Francois
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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