Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

A Radical Shift: Why Have Quebec Sovereigntists Become So Keen on Canada?

Magazine article Literary Review of Canada

A Radical Shift: Why Have Quebec Sovereigntists Become So Keen on Canada?

Article excerpt

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. …

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