Downtown Montreal was full of revelers last March 10.  Despite subzero temperatures, they hit the streets, some wearing little more than a smile.  But each had a maple leaf somewhere, on a flag, a piece of clothing, a sign, or even in place of the proverbial fig leaf.

Such was the scene described by Macleans magazine’s Benoit Aubin on that cold March day, when even the oft-estranged Quebecers, English-speaking and Francophone alike, jammed Bishop Street on the west end and St. Laurent Boulevard in the east, meeting together on St. Cathereine Street to cheer the Canadian Olympic hockey team’s first gold medal since 1952.

And not a single fleur-de-lis to be found.

From reading this account, you might guess that the sovereignty question in Quebec has been solved and that the danger of Canada’s potential break-up—a question that dominated political discussion here for well over a decade—has passed.  At least that is what Canada’s establishment, from Macleans on down, would like to believe.  And they have evidence that the pro-sovereignty, separatist forces are losing ground.  While the Parti Québécois still holds a majority in the provincial National Assembly, it’s currently in third place in nationwide polls and has lost several by-elections this past spring.  Many political experts think it is just a matter of time before the PQ loses control.  (The next provincial elections are in 2003.)  Meanwhile, the Bloc Québécois, the federal-level Quebec separatist party, has gone from 54 seats and being the official opposition to the Liberals back in 1993 to only 38 seats after the 2000 national election.  Polls show that, if a referendum on independence or sovereignty were held now, independence would garner only 42 percent of the vote.

Wasn’t it just seven years ago that a mere 50,000 votes kept Quebec from taking its place as one of the nations of the world?  Time, however, marches on, and so do the unseen forces that have helped to undermine, but not eradicate, separatist feeling.  Aubin describes a populace tired of a constitutional question that has been a part of six elections and of a 12-year referendum.  

Helping the federalist and hurting the sovereignty cause over the past seven years has been a strong economic tide, which lifted boats throughout the province and took away the impetus for leaving a Canada that, in the early 1990’s, was near economic collapse.  Then millions were spent by Ottawa’s Council for Canadian Unity, budgeted by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in a Lincolnesque attempt to save the union, after the embarrassment of watching his home province nearly leave him a man without a country.  Also helping the cause of federalism is the success that the Quebec government has had preserving the “distinct society” it wanted acknowledged in the Meech Lake Accord, even if this has been done by the odious squads of language police.

Thus, like many successful political parties, the Pequistes have no second act to their show, which leaves them with nothing to say right now.  Even though they can claim, as Aubin cites, that Quebec’s economic growth has been faster than Ontario’s, that budget deficits have been slashed to nothing, that every second dollar of Canada’s high-tech exports comes from Quebec, and that they have a Gross Domestic Product similar to Sweden’s, none of these accomplishments exactly excite the activists who, over 30 years ago, were working the grassroots and holding rallies for René Lévesque.  And by trying to emphasize good government, the PQ only highlights the blundering of Bernard Landry, who became premier and the Pequistes’ leader upon the resignation of Lucien Borchard in March 2001.  The opulence and elitism of one of the largest provincial cabinets in Quebec’s history have only highlighted recent scandals involving Landry’s cronies.

Thus the conundrum that the Pequistes face: Since the public has no burning desire to revisit the sovereignty question, and since even hardcore separatists are demoralized and resigned to seeing independence as a dream, the PQ does not talk about it very much anymore.  By not doing so, however, they have nothing to campaign for and are no different from the Liberals in many of the stands they take on other issues.  Without sovereignty, what is the point of the PQ?  Many Quebec youths, having grown up in Pierre Trudeau’s multicultural candyland, view the PQ as just another political party and the sovereignty question as one of their parents’ hang-ups.  Meanwhile, more conservative PQ supporters, particularly in rural areas, are switching their support to a new party, the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), led by 32-year-old political wunderkind Mario Dumont, who wants to provide Quebecers with sovereignty from their own government, by calling for less provincial intervention and more local control of government services, particularly the health-care system.  (Ironically, this was once the platform of the Republican Party.)  The bye-elections helped the ADQ increase their numbers in the assembly to five, and they are, as I write, second behind the Liberals in the polls at 36 to 32 percent.

Thus the ADQ and the PQ are competing to see which picks up the sovereignty banner, or, as online columnist Peter Black says, “a toned-down version of what’s left of René Lévesque’s sovereignty movement,” against the federalist Liberals.  Whoever frames the question in this new way, gives the issue a new meaning for Quebec separatists, and stirs the dormant passions will be the winner.  Before either party can do so, however, it must accomplish two tasks.

The first is to acknowledge that a majority of Quebecers do not want to live in an independent nation and never really did.  After all, the Canadiens helped build the country just as much as the Anglos did.  The stout voyageurs who trapped and transported furs and pelts through the hinterlands of Quebec, Ontario, and the Upper Midwest generated the money that made Canada possible.  Their exploits live on in historical interpretations at Old Fort William outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, the trading-post-turned-tourist-site of the Northwest Fur Company, and in the paintings in restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, hotel rooms, and resorts all along Lake Superior’s western shore.  Quebecers never hated Canada, and the threat of separation was more of a bluff, as one Quebec resident put it—a trump card used to get more out of its relationship with Ottawa and a way to protect its culture.  Even if the referendum of 1995 had passed, its ambiguous wording would have kept the issue tied up in Canada’s Supreme Court for years.  In the meantime, Chrétien would no doubt have deployed the Canadian army throughout the province, making sure the separatists never assumed any kind of power.  Now, the court has made the success of any future referendum virtually impossible with its “clear question” and “overwhelming majority” standards.

So with those delusions out of the way, the next task is to determine what kind of sovereignty Quebecers want within Canada.  Quebec has taken its place among such quasinations of the world as Scotland, Wales, Catalonia, Montenegro, Flanders, Brittany, and Abkhazia.  Globalization has weakened central governments and made possible the autonomy of distinct regions and the outright independence of nation-states in places like Eastern Europe.  But at what price?  Is sovereignty worth it when those same forces of globalization reduce autonomous regions and newly independent states to peonage to NATO, the European Union or the World Bank?  Is having a flag, a national anthem, a seat in the United Nations, or athletes in the Olympics worth breaking long-standing ties with your former brothers-in-arms, if the end result is to make everyone weaker to the outside world—a world that wants us all to conform to its cultural standards and be a market for its goods?  In other words, was it worth blowing Yugoslavia to hell, causing misery, death, and untold destruction, just so Croatia could get an IMF loan?  Would Quebec’s sovereignty be worth anything if it became part of George Soros’s or Rupert Murdoch’s empire?

Nationalists, separatists, and those in favor of sovereignty in the West have to answer these questions now, because they did not in the 1990’s during the heady rush toward a freedom that, in the end, became a mirage.  Macedonia may be “independent,” free of a Yugoslavia on a map or in an encyclopedia, but most Macedonians know that their independence is an illusion when their own government has to acquiesce to “outside pressure” just to gain protection from the Albanian mafia.  It simply chose to be under the protection of the mafia of Brussels/Washington, D.C., instead.  Of all the new nations created since the end of the Cold War, only a few—Belarus, Slovakia, Armenia, Moldova, and Turkmenistan—have so far resisted attempts either to sell themselves or to be violated by the globalists and their native quislings.

A new Quebec sovereignty movement must not just ask for more power and more responsibilities from Ottawa in such areas as health care, taxation, trade, immigration, and education but must also have a voice in Canadian foreign policy, economics, defending the nation against Islamic extremism, preserving Canada’s cultural identity and borders, and opposing encroachments from global financial organizations looking for their piece of the Canadian pie.  A new Quebec sovereignty movement must address the still-thorny questions of identity, heritage, citizenship, and language within the province.  No matter how many people speak French, and no matter how many signs or textbooks are written en français, Quebec cannot be a truly “distinct society” if immigrants make up the bulk of its population, particularly Muslims from North Africa determined to use Montreal as a base to launch terrorist attacks on the United States.  Again, the same forces of globalization that can loosen ties between region and central government can easily undermine the region.  The PQ dropped discussion of such issues in a fit of political correctness.  If neither it nor the ADQ picks them up again, both will become irrelevant.