With only a few days left for Scottish voters to decide about their future in or out of the United Kingdom, the international media hype around Scotland’s September 18 referendum on independence has intensified. The fact that the “yes” side—supporting Scotland’s independence from the U.K.—has narrowed the gap with the “no” side in recent polls only adds to the drama.
The rather complacent British political and economic establishment is now showing serious concern about the potential of a “yes” victory. On the other hand, pro-independence movements outside the U.K. appear enthused at the prospect of a “yes” victory on September 18. Just recently, Catalans in Barcelona took to the streets over their own referendum on independence, scheduled for November 9.
In Québec, pro-independence emissaries from the Parti Québécois (PQ) and Bloc Québécois (BQ) have gone to Scotland in the closing days of the campaign, and are salivating at the possibility that the 307-year union between Britain and Scotland could come to an end. Will a “yes” vote have direct repercussions for the independence movement in Québec? What are the overall implications if the “yes” side wins in Scotland?
Yesterday, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) concluded their investigation of the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec train derailment that occurred on July 5, 2013. According to the final report, the accident was caused by a runaway train carrying crude oil that was parked at the top of a hill for the evening, but upon its brakes failing, slid down the tracks and crashed near the center of town resulting in an explosion killing 47 people. The TSB determined that eighteen factors led to the catastrophe, but emphasized a “weak safety culture” as one of the major causes.
TSB found that the rail operator, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), which has since filed for bankruptcy, had a weak safety management system and lacked effective training and maintenance procedures. Their report also criticized the transportation ministry, Transport Canada, for a lack of management and regulation. The investigation found that Transport Canada was aware that MMA carried a higher risk of accidents in recent years due to an increase in the transportation of crude oil, yet performed few audits and failed to follow up when it uncovered problems.
The report recommends more comprehensive audits and improved technology to prevent runaway trains caused by brake failure. In January, the safety boards of Canada and the U.S. collaborated on suggestions to improve safety, given that crude oil transportation by train has increased considerably in the last ten years due to advanced technology and the subsequent shale boom. New Democrat Member of Parliament Hoang Mai has attributed the accident to the fact that “conservatives have left companies to monitor themselves,” and other opposition politicians have also blamed the federal government for the disaster.
Since the birth of Canada in 1867, Quebec has been an influential player in determining the country’s leadership. Throughout the country’s history, Quebec has played an important role in federal politics, most notably in modern times. Not only have Quebecers (Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin) occupied the seat of the Canadian Prime Minister for over 36 years (1968 to 2006), but throughout those years, the pro-independence movement in Quebec has had a persistent impact on the conduct of federal politics.
Until the 1993 federal general election, it was conventional wisdom in Canadian electoral politics that no party could form a majority government in the Canadian House of Commons without some significant Quebec representation. This changed with the emergence of the pro-independence Bloc Québécois, which took the majority of seats from the province of Quebec, thereby becoming the Official Opposition. The Bloc went on to become a dominant voice for Quebec in the federal parliament in every subsequent election until the last electoral rendezvous in 2011. It is fair to say that Quebec’s absence within the federal power structure curtailed its influence and gradually resulted in its decline as a player in federal politics over the next two decades.
After just 18 months at the head of a minority government, Québec Premier Pauline Marois went down to a stunning defeat in Québec's April 7 elections. The governing Parti Québécois (PQ), hoping to form a majority government and leading in the polls in early March, dropped from 54 seats to 30, and saw its popular vote numbers decrease from 32 percent to 25 percent. Premier Marois also lost her seat and immediately resigned on election night. The Québec Liberal party will now form a majority government, and its mandate extends until October 2018.
While subscribing to the adage that “campaigns matter,” I must acknowledge that this is the most spectacular turnaround in Québec election campaign history. This marks the fifth consecutive election that the pro- independence PQ receives less than 35 percent of the popular vote, and it has suffered four defeats in the last five contests. With a leadership race now in the offing, the often fractious PQ is in for some trying times.
If there is one election campaign that usually resonates across Canada outside of a national election, it is the one held in the province of Québec (a federated state). This has been the case since the 1960s when the modern age of Québec politics and the growing impact of television converged. A strong thrust for major progressive reforms advocated by the Liberal government of the day, and the emergence of a strong nationalist fervor dominated the campaigns. The political effervescence of the day resulted in the creation of pro-Québec independence party with a social democratic agenda in 1968. It was named the Parti Québécois (PQ).
In the early 1970s the pro-independence and highly nationalist PQ became a growing force. By 1976, they formed a majority government and committed to have a referendum that would result in an independent Québec and the breaking up of Canada as we know it. Since then, the PQ has been in (1976-1985/1994-2003/2012-) and out of power but when in power, they tend to promote Québec’s political separation from a federal Canada. There have been two referenda in Quebec (1980,1995) and the pro-independence forces have lost both.
In September 2012, the PQ formed a minority government and has worked since then to win a majority by building up support. On March 5, Québec Premier Pauline Marois asked Québec’s Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the National Assembly for an election to be held on April 7. A majority would give the PQ the reins to push for Québec independence and possibly stronger advocacy of language legislation to protect the French language (Québec’s official and majority language).
Twenty years ago this June, the Québec government under Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa adopted legislation stipulating that all outdoor commercial signage should be in French, but lifted the ban on the presence of English and other languages. The media often refers to this as the return of bilingual signs since the 1977 Charter of the French Language (also known as Bill 101) made French the only language allowed in outdoor commercial advertising. While the issue was highly divisive throughout the 1980s and lead to court challenges, the decision in June 1993 by the ruling Liberals was significant enough to make international news. It has since withstood the test of time (in the interests of full disclosure, I was chief of staff to Premier Bourassa from 1989-94).
To better comprehend the significance and magnitude of this language chapter, it is useful to go back in history. The 1960s and 1970s were turbulent times in Québec as the Québec independence movement gained ground and became a legitimate and important component in consideringQuébec’s options for a future in or out of a federal Canada. Closely associated with the debate on Québec independence was the conviction within nationalist circles that the use of the French language (concentrated in Québec and spoken by over 80 percent of Quebeckers) was in danger, and that legislative measures were needed to protect and defend French in various walks of life—education, public administration, language in the workplace, and outdoor commercial signs.
When a Liberal (federalist party) government decided to make French the only official language of Québec in 1974, the hope was that it would calm fears about the future of French. The independentist Parti Québécois, however, came into power in 1976 promising to bring forward comprehensive language legislation. Bill 101, or the Charter of the French language, was enacted in 1977.
With the election of a pro-sovereignty party in Québec last September, the questions about Québec’s future within the Canadian federation have once again surfaced. While there is no referendum about Québec’s future on the horizon—in part because the ruling Parti Québécois made only a vague commitment in last year’s election campaign to conduct such an exercise, and in part because the Parti Québécois forms a minority government in the National Assembly—it is appropriate to look at the workings of Canadian federalism and see how Québec has accommodated itself within the system.
It is useful to remember that all three countries in North America are federations: Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. All three federalist systems operate differently. There is not a “one size fits all” brand of federalism. In the last 50 years, all three federations have had their challenges. Regional tensions, jurisdictional battles and the aspirations of federated states like Québec have contributed to changes in how these federations operate. Of the three North American federations, Canada is the most decentralized—in fact, it is one of the most decentralized countries in the world.
Canada’s federation has a defined distribution of powers, some exclusive to each order of government—either federal or provincial—and some shared between the two. Economics, culture, immigration, and the environment are shared jurisdictions. All powers not enumerated in Canada’s federal constitution are relegated to the central government through what is called the residual clause.
Despite this more decentralized federation, disputes have periodically surfaced within Canada when central government policies affect provincial jurisdictions through federal spending power or the development of new programs. Since Canada’s creation as a federation in 1867, we have undergone periods of centralizing federal policies as well as periods of greater provincial autonomy. In Canada as in other federations, the Supreme Court has often been called to adjudicate these disputes. The federated state of Québec has been at the center of these conflicts more than any other, always arguing to protect existing powers or add new jurisdictions.
OTTAWA-The election landscape has changed in the predominantly-francophone province of Québec. On September 4, les Québécois elected a minority pro-independence party, le Parti québécois (PQ) with Pauline Marois at its helm.
This makes life a lot simpler for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. A referendum on the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada, a lifelong dream for Marois, is on the backburner at least for now.
Still, the worst thing for Harper would be to be too complacent, observers say.
If he doesn’t want to go down in history as the prime minister “who lost Québec” he has to “calculate his moves,” says political scientist Louis Massicotte from l’Université Laval in Québec City.
Unlike in other Canadian provinces, a Québec election can have repercussions on the functioning and future of the Canadian federation. Since 1970, the separatist Parti Québécois (PQ) has been a significant force in Québec politics. It has formed governments on two occasions: 1976-1985 and 1994-2003.
Last week, on September 4, PQ won a minority government with 54 seats, compared to 50 seats for the outgoing Parti Libéral du Québec (Québec Liberal Party—PLQ). It was a close election with only 31.9 percent of eligible voters casting their ballots for the PQ, the lowest total for a government in Québec history. Nonetheless, Pauline Marois became the first woman elected as premier in the history of the province. A dedicated sovereignist, determined and perseverant, she should not be underestimated as she takes over the reins of power in a minority government.
Departing Premier Jean Charest leaves office after winning three consecutive mandates. Following the election results, Charest decided to end a 28-year career in both federal politics (i.e., Ottawa) and provincial politics (i.e., Québec). His career stands out as possibly the most unique in Canadian history: he left a promising federal career, having served for a short period as deputy prime minister of Canada, to run for provincial politics and became premier in 2003.
It is too early to draw sweeping conclusions about the Charest era. Suffice it to say that he promoted Québec’s role in the Canadian federation and that he departs office with support for Québec separatism at its lowest level, despite the PQ win.
An election call in the province of Québec is making federalists in Ottawa very jumpy. The most powerful pro-independence party in Québec, le Parti Québécois (PQ), is vowing to make a comeback. And that spells trouble for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. Voters go to the polls on September 4, 2012.
Although short on details, Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois has vowed to “achieve sovereignty after consulting the population in a referendum that will be held at a time it deems to be appropriate.” No timetable has been set.
That ambiguous statement is meant to shore up her support among pro-independence Quebeckers while at the same time, luring federalist voters fed up with a tired government.
After nine years in power, the reigning Liberal Premier of Québec Jean Charest is seeking a fourth mandate in the midst of a corruption scandal and social unrest that has rocked the province for months. Since the spring, Charest has been battling a student upheaval over university tuition hikes. At the height of the movement, which some observers liken to the May 1968 revolt in France, more than 250,000 people—many harboring the emblematic red square on their clothing—invaded the streets of Montréal.
At times violent, the movement took on a life of its own. Families joined with protesters to attack capitalism, social inequalities, corruption and the Charest government. Protests ballooned following the implementation of Bill 78. The emergency legislation suspended the winter university and college session and forced protesters to give police forces a precise itinerary and eight hours notice for demonstrations involving 50 people or more. Things could get nasty again as classes are set to resume in mid-August.
After making concessions and with no deal in sight, Charest had hinted he would go to the polls to let the people decide between two stark choices: democracy and law and order or “the choice of Madame Marois, referendums and the street.” A strong campaigner, he set the election date for September 4, about 10 days before televised public hearings on corruption are set to resume. The Québec premier is campaigning on his economic record, promising to create 250,000 jobs in the next four to five years, and to balance the books in next year’s budget. He’s banking on his ambitious Plan Nord, a 25-year plan to create thousands of jobs by developing the province’s resource-rich north.
With all these tensions bubbling, it’s impossible to call the election. Just last year, it was unimaginable that Québec voters would toss out the separatist Bloc Québécois on the federal scene and vote en masse for the left-leaning New Democratic Party led by the deceased Jack Layton.
Most observers feel there’s no appetite for Québec independence. This is not to say les Québécois embrace the federal structure with enthusiasm, says Professor Jean-Herman Guay from the Université de Sherbrooke in Québec. Support for the PQ has been declining in the last two elections but for some, especially among francophone voters, the “dream” of an independent Québec state still has some appeal.
A recent online poll by polling firm Léger Marketing for the QMI Agency puts the Parti québécois at 33 percent, the Liberals at 31 percent and newcomer, la Coalition Avenir Québec, at 21 percent. Two smaller pro-sovereignty parties along with the Green Party could eat into Pauline Marois’ support. Voters identified health and lower taxes as their top priorities. Separation only garnered 9 percent.
One candidate running for the PQ actually acknowledged it would be political suicide to push through a referendum on secession. Support for the PQ has been declining in the last two elections. Pauline Marois initially wore the red square in support of the protesters but has since adopted a more prudent approach. One of the former student leaders, Léo Burea-Blouin, is running as a PQ candidate.
Harper’s best bet is to cross his fingers that Charest will win a majority or minority government and thus avoid a political showdown with the Parti Québécois. Unpopular in Québec, he won’t interfere in the election campaign.
Quebeckers seem to be allergic to Harper’s brand of politics and Conservative ideology. After making a number of concessions, such as recognizing les Québécois as nation within a united Canada in his first mandate, resolving a long-standing fiscal imbalance problem between Ottawa and Québec and concluding a sales tax issue, he has made no inroads in Québec. Harper is stuck at five seats out of a possibility of 75 seats.
“None of those measures have been productive,” remarks Guay. “It did not increase his number of seats or his percentage of votes. Mr. Harper has difficulty seducing the Québec electorate.”
While trying to keep a low-profile in the campaign, Harper has his ear to the ground. It was reported by the Canadian Press that he held a secret meeting in June in Montréal with former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to discuss the possibility of a Parti Québécois win and to seek his advice on how to build bridges with the predominantly francophone province of Québec.
As is always the case in Québec politics, the campaign promises to be anything but dull.
The campaign is shaping up to be a three-way race between the Liberal Party of Québec, the Parti Québécois and la Coalition Avenir Québec headed by former PQ minister François Legault. Legault is running on an economic platform, focusing on integrity in government and promising to put the issue of independence on hold for 10 years.
He kicked off his campaign by saying that corruption was the Québec Liberal Party’s “trademark.” Legault has recruited anti-corruption crusader Jacques Duchesneau, the former Montréal police chief and former head of the Québec Anti-collusion Unit. Duchesneau has testified that political parties in Québec are being largely funded by “dirty money” offered by companies who expect and get government contracts and political favors in return.
Under pressure, Charest reluctantly set up a commission of inquiry last November to look into allegations of a widespread corruption and collusion scheme related to the awarding of public contracts to construction firms. He has defended his record to clean up corruption in government.
Although not immediately on the radar, the possibility of a third Québec referendum on secession would create “a lot more fear” this time, says pollster Nik Nanos from Nanos Research in view of the risky economic climate. Les Québécois voted against separation in 1980 and 1995. But the razor thin NO results in 1995 rattled then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who thought he had lost the country.
In the last 10 days of the 1995 referendum campaign, Chrétien increased his presence in Québec and turned to a much more nationalistic and popular figure to sell Canada to les Québécois, Jean Charest.
Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.