Harper's Win Quells Separation Talks

Le Peuple have spoken, and the election of a minority Conservative government with a foothold in Quebec has triggered a political landslide in the province - one that leaves the pundits befuddled, the federal Liberals twitching on the floor, and the Bloquistes feeling like Wile E.

Harper's Win Quells Separation Talks

Le Peuple have spoken, and the election of a minority Conservative government with a foothold in Quebec has triggered a political landslide in the province - one that leaves the pundits befuddled, the federal Liberals twitching on the floor, and the Bloquistes feeling like Wile E. Coyote just past the edge of the cliff. The tremor in Ottawa has also sent the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS scrambling for a revised strategy against a beleaguered Jean CHAREST - who is now apparently back among the living. "Call it a Big Bang, says Montreal pollster Jean-Marc Léger. "Quebec voters have embarked on a major political housecleaning spree. The two parties that dominated the political debate are both imploding. And my hunch is the voters aren't done yet."

The Liberals finished third in Quebec with 20.7 per cent of the vote, one of their worst performances since Confederation, falling to 13 seats from 36 in 2000. The BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS, back to its pre-Gomery standing of 42 per cent support, still holds 51 of the province's 75 seats, down from 54 at the last election. The Conservatives won 10, in the process gathering roughly the same number of votes in Quebec as they did in their stronghold of Alberta: just short of one million. "And now, even those who didn't vote for them want them to succeed," Léger says.

The federal election has meant "a momentous upset for the souverainiste movement," says Yves Dupré, a Montreal consultant who's been dabbling in local politics since being an organizer for René Lévesque in the seventies. Dupré knows a bandwagon when he sees one. "Harper's only priority will be to win a majority next time, and he has more growth potential here than anywhere else, so expect him to be very nice to Quebec," he says. "As the blue wave swells, watch for defectors from all sides who will want to join in." How did this happen? "The federalist voters were the first to drop the Liberals for the Conservatives early on in the campaign," says Claude Gauthier, chief political pollster at CROP. "In the last stretch, you could see Bloc supporters gravitate toward the Conservatives as well."

The Conservative breakthrough in Quebec was no fluke, and voters knew what they were doing when they supporting them, according to Simon Langlois, a sociology professor at Université Laval in Quebec City. "It was a strategic vote. People supported the Tories because they wanted in, they wanted their share of power." The Bloc's perennial opposition stance - "defending Quebec's interests" from the sidelines - has lost some of its appeal, it seems.

Since the failure of the Meech Lake accord and then the referendum of 1995, the federal Liberals and the separatists had radicalized their positions. That left a huge middle ground open - between centralizing federalism and outright separation - for the Tories to claim for themselves. Many Quebec voters between the rock and the hard place felt grateful for that option. Harper's spectacular breakthrough in Quebec - from nine to 24.6 per cent support in a few weeks, without a big organization, "shows that many Quebecers want to stay in Canada, provided they receive positive signals, and that there is good faith and room to manoeuvre and negotiate things," says André Pratte, chief editorialist at Montreal's La Presse newspaper. Most revealing: the Tories made the bulk of their gains in the 418 area code - the hinterland east of Montreal, including Quebec City and the Saguenay, traditional nationalist turf.

Ever since Pierre Trudeau and the eighties, la question nationale has been, at its heart, a pitched battle between two groups of French Canadians embattled in their respective capital cities. No more. How to vilify an Anglo Prime Minister from Alberta who systematically uses French first when speaking in Ottawa? "The problem of the souverainistes now is they don't have an easily identifiable enemy anymore," Dupré says.

Just a few weeks ago, a confident Parti Québécois was hatching referendum plans to follow their expected victory over an embattled Charest - in an election still about two years down the road. They've now sobered up somewhat. "The election has brought us back with both feet firmly on the ground," veteran PQ MNA Jean-Pierre Charbonneau told Maclean's. As for the Bloc, with its numbers doped up by the sponsorship scandal, it coasted through a cosy campaign - and came up short. "Overconfidence, and underestimating your opponents, is always the worst possible mistake in politics," Charbonneau says.

Overconfident no more. The PQ is looking over its shoulder now. A new left-wing party, Québec Solidaire, was launched just last week. Like the Green party, which picked up momentum during this campaign, its supporters may be favourable to separation, but they don't make it their priority. The PQ's new leader, André Boisclair, "is doing a decent job, but he has yet to light a spark in people's eyes," one PQ insider says. Like most observers in the province, Yves Dupré is convinced that "the PQ won't be able to topple the Charest government if it sticks to its current platform." It calls for holding a referendum on separation (association with Canada optional) immediately after coming to power.

So, separatism dead, one more time, and Canada saved, once again? "Careful!" André Pratte warns. "There are still 40 per cent of people who would vote for sovereignty, and that's not likely to go down fast. But the election has opened a new window of opportunity - let's see what the politicians can make of it."

Many observers were baffled by how easy it was for Harper to win over a quarter of Quebec voters, with vague promises of flexible federalism, decentralization and improved fiscal balance. But not all of them. "It shows what I've always said: that most Quebecers are eager to stay in Canada, provided they get the right signals and some reassurance," says Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, who was a key player when that was last attempted, by the Mulroney Conservatives at Meech Lake. "But Harper must make sure to keep the expectations under control, and deliver quickly."

The last time a majority of Quebecers was squarely in favor of separation was in the weeks following the collapse of Meech Lake - but, too bad for the Péquistes, they were not in power at the time. For now, while Harper works at his own plan for national reconciliation, all they can do is sit tight - and hope for things to go wrong again.

See also SEPARATISM.

Maclean's February 20, 2006