Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois at a campaign stop in Chateauguay, Quebec on September 1 2012. She is to set up a minority government in Quebec., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Quebec separatists' success spells trouble
The Parti Quebecois forming a minority government has caused political waves, and its policies may lead to a population drain
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 5 September 2012 09.30 EDT
The night was already surprising enough before a man in a bathrobe shot someone outside Pauline Marois's victory rally in downtown Montreal. Only a short time earlier, separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) leader Marois became the province's premier-in-waiting, gathering 54 seats in the National Assembly and a minority government. The shooting will likely go down as a disturbing moment in Canadian political history. But what about the election results?
As Quebecers woke up this morning to the new world of a PQ minority government (and say goodbye to now-former premier Jean Charest, who was unable to hold his own seat), the rest of the country will equally be wondering what comes next. That includes those just over the provincial border in Ottawa, where the ghost of past national existential nightmares is looming once again. Marois's victory means that, like it or not, the question of separation is back on the table in Canada. In August, Marois told reporters that the government would have final say on any question of sovereignty, but the PQ platform posited that a referendum could be held on any issue that garnered 15% support from Quebecers – about 850,000 people – by way of a signed petition. It's ambiguous enough to keep everyone guessing, as it is no doubt designed to do – especially for those outside Quebec.
While the prime minister, Stephen Harper, congratulated Marois in an official statement on her Tuesday night victory, he said that "We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past." The federal Conservative government, he said, "will continue to work with the government of Quebec toward our common goals." But it might be worth asking at this juncture what those common goals are. The government's recent agenda and its decisions regarding federal gun registry and employment insurance have put it at odds with Quebec. As much as Marois was fighting her opponents in Quebec, she launched a seemingly equal number of jabs at the prime minister and Ottawa, telling her supporters she would fight to regain more sovereignty in ways that are surely not possible, such as the demand that Quebec begin handling its own employment insurance, overseas aid and even citizenship. In each case, Ottawa would be constitutionally forced to oppose, thus leading to further animosity and, Marois must assume, an increased perception that the federal government is acting against Quebec's interests.
For the federal New Democratic party (NDP), Marois's victory is perhaps even more interesting. The party holds 58 seats in Quebec – far more than the Conservatives, who only managed to hold on to five in the 2011 federal election. Since its groundbreaking result, the NDP has positioned itself as a staunchly federalist party, and its leader, former Quebec Liberal party cabinet minister Thomas Mulcair has already promised that by the time Quebecers go to the polls again, there will be a provincial NDP there, waiting for their votes. Already the NDP has made a serious attempt to position itself as the only federalist choice for Quebecers. Marois's victory may have made that argument even stronger.
In the meantime, Quebec might transform. If the PQ fulfils its campaign promises, Quebec public servants will no longer be allowed to wear any religious symbols except for the crucifix (that would include yarmulkes and head scarves), non-French speaking Quebecers will be barred from public office, and there will be even further restrictions on the use of English in schools and workplaces. Should all of that take place, Quebec is at risk of suffering a population drain, as its citizens – particularly its Anglophones – start to look to the rest of Canada for a less discriminatory environment. Which would be an unfortunate and disturbing result indeed.