Quebec’s sovreigntist movement could learn a thing or two from Liberal Party leader Jean Charest.  His return to the premiership of the pro-vince should be a lesson to the sovereigntists that it is always darkest before dawn.

The sovereigntists’ night, however, will last a while longer, as the provincial Liberals have smashed them to pieces in the recent elections for the National Assembly.  Charest will now head a majority government of 76 seats compared to the deposed Parti Québecois’ (PQ) 45 and the Action Democratique du Quebec’s (ADQ) mere four seats.  Not only are the sovereigntists now in the minority, but, if a referendum for independence were held today, only 38 percent—the hardliners—would vote for it.

The decline of sovereigntist sentiment has been steep since the heady days of the mid-1990’s, when the PQ nearly led Quebec out of Canada.  Since then, the movement has been torn by internal divisions, a general lack of vision, and changing demographics and economics.  In 1996, when Lucien Bouchard, founder of the Bloc Québecois, returned to Quebec City to head up the PQ government, achieving independence seemed only a matter of time.  But Bouchard, a conservative by nature and political persuasion, was convinced by Quebec’s business elite to spend his time fixing the local economy and reforming the provincial government, for fear of economic ruin if independence should come.  His policies were carried forward by his successor, the current and soon-to-be deposed PQ leader Bernard Landry.  While the PQ was soft-pedaling the sovereignty question and refusing
to hold another referendum until the time was right, Ottawa, stunned by the 1995 referendum’s near success, sprung into action.  Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien allocated millions to promote federalism in the province, and parliament passed the Clear Question Act, making independence referenda a matter for Ottawa’s interpretation.  When the Canadian Supreme Court upheld the law, dreams of independence were shattered.

Thus, the PQ quit talking about sovereignty.  Disgusted nationalists searched for a new party and found the ADQ.  Its leader, the youthful Mario Dumont, had supported the 1995 referendum, and so the sovereigntists, especially in rural Quebec, flocked to his banner.  In the spring of 2002, the ADQ won several by-elections to increase their ridings to five, and Dumont shot to the top of the polls.  This new face on the Canadian political scene strode into the Toronto Economic Club last fall and wowed the Canadian elites with his proposals and charisma.

However, the very moment of triumph for Dumont and his fledgling party became his undoing back home.  Dumont may have wowed them on Bay Street, but, on St. Laurent Boulevard, he disgusted them.  Sovereigntists were outraged that he made no constitutional demands and failed to engage in the usual Anglo-baiting; they concluded that he was too “Canadien” for their tastes and went right back into the open arms of the PQ.  “It was a catastrophe,” said one political observer in the Globe and Mail.  “ Francophone voters expect a premier to have some belief in sovereignty and when he didn’t offer it, they deserted him.”  This, plus the usual frontal assault by the Canadian and Quebec media on any genuinely conservative candidate (and the inevitable flip-flops that followed), sent Dumont crashing back to earth just as fast as he took off.  Other symptoms of the diseases that affect Canadian conservatives, such as party infighting and lack of funds, left the ADQ with one fewer seat than they had before the election, despite gaining 19 percent of the vote.  Dumont looked like Quebec’s version of Stockwell Day.

Perhaps Dumont did not talk about sovereignty because he did not think he had to.  After all, the vast majority of political observers told any candidate who would listen that voters in Quebec were sick of the sovereignty question.  Certainly, Landry believed this, which is why he spent much of his time promoting all the good things that his government had accomplished, including instituting a four-day work week.  This left a vacuum that was nicely filled by the staunch federalist Charest.  Without the sovereignty issue, the PQ is no different from the Liberals (and more to the left in many ways, which explains much of the displeasure with the current PQ leadership), and, without sovereignty, the ADQ is seen as a right-wing fringe party.  A divided, demoralized, and diffused sovereignty movement was no match for the Grits.

Voter turnout for the election was one of the lowest in decades; the Iraq war overshadowed much of the campaign, and many Québecois felt that none of the parties addressed the real issues facing the province.  As one business manager noted in the Globe and Mail, “We have one of the world’s highest suicide rates among young people, one of the highest divorce rates, one of the highest rates of single-parent families, not to mention North America’s highest abortion rate and lowest birthrate.  What are the people we elect to govern us doing to solve these problems?”