You should have seen the smirks and the skeptical faces when Jacques Parizeau told reporters for the first time that his plan to revive the Parti Québécois was to make it a hardline separatist party again. "The PQ will be an outright separatist party before, during and after the election," he promised upon becoming party leader in 1988, and has
repeated a zillion times since.
Six years ago, the PQ was a spent force, divided, demoralized, aimless and broke—and most observers called that promise sheer political folly.
Back then, people were looking forward to a solution instead of looking inward for reasons to revolt. Canada was about to be “saved” by the Meech Lake constitutional accord. Renewed federalism was the flavor of the day. The idea of separation looked as obsolete as black-andwhite television. Parizeau sounded like yesterday’s man, pushing yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s problems.
But now, according to the latest polls, the PQ is poised to capture between 80 and 100 of the province’s 125 ridings. More voters are prepared to support the
PQ in the upcoming election than are prepared to support sovereignty for Quebec in a referendum. And more people are dissatisfied with the Liberal government than are yet prepared to vote for the PQ—meaning Parizeau’s party can expect to pick up even more support by voting day. In other words, a walk. Parizeau’s advisers are convinced that all he has to do is lay low, criticize the government for unemployment and potholes, and he has it made.
Parizeau’s current good fortune is the result of good strategy and smart tactics. The strategy was to bet that constitutional reforms aimed at co-opting Quebec would be rejected by the other provinces, and to position separatism as a long-term alternative. The tactic now is to wait for the only federalist party in Quebec to tumble out of government. If Parizeau can hold that line throughout the campaign, he stands a good chance of winning—despite the fact that
revolting against Canada probably is the last thing on the minds of most Quebec voters nowadays. Reports from the four ridings in which byelections have been under way since July 7 make one thing clear: this election will not be about upsetting Canada, or about venting frustration against Ottawa. It is mostly about jobs, joblessness, budget cuts. And about a change of government.
In a way, Quebecers are back today to where they were in the summer of 1976,
when an incredulous René Lévesque was about to land the Parti Québécois in power for the first time: voters seem prepared to dance with the PQ, but not yet ready to go home with it at the end. The only thing missing this summer is the fun. Back in 1976, there was a sense of promise, excitement, novelty; a sense of coming of age; a sense of revenge. Above all, there was hope; heady, busy hope, as there always is, at first, when intellectuals, idealists, youth—or the NDP— capture political power.
The theme song of the PQ’s campaigns said things like “it’s the beginning of a new era” and “tomorrow belongs to us.” People believed in it. The PQ financed itself by selling membership cards. Corporate donations—few and far between anyway—were shunned.
Party activists worked for free, out of a sense of mission. Everything was changing at the time, and the party representing the Frenchspeaking baby boomers—mass-educated, selfcentred, ambitious and very numerous—had captured power. Tomorrow belonged to them.
It did, and now tomorrow is today. A funny thing happened after a majority of voters rejected separation in the May, 1980, referendum: French-speakers have nonetheless become the dominant force in Quebec, often forcing their own agenda upon other Canadians. During the past 20 years, Quebecers have had to learn, sometimes in pain, to view themselves as a majority—often under attack from its own minorities—rather than as a minority protesting against the
majority. Majorities seldom protest.
Parizeau knows full well that Quebecers will not get all fired up over the current federalprovincial humdrum. Quebecers won’t fight at bus stops over whose bureaucrats will sign welfare cheques. Language, culture, fear, humiliation—that’s what moves them.
After eight years of Liberal rule, a cruel recession, and the failure of Robert Bourassa to patch up the constitutional problem, Daniel Johnson was the only candidate ready and willing to take over as party leader and
premier. As president of the Treasury Board, Johnson has made dedicated enemies of publie sector employees. Needier citizens view him as a heartless
slasher, but his spending cuts
were too timid to win him a Ralph Klein-like aura among better-off voters. Furthermore, Johnson is the first Quebec premier who does not have a plan to change or improve the Constitution. That, in a province where “status quo federalism” has become a dirty word, even among federalists.
A political omen seems to hang over the heads of the Johnson boys in Quebec. In the Sixties, Daniel Johnson père was premier for only two years. In the Eighties, younger brother Pierre-Marc Johnson was premier for all of 10 weeks. Now that it his turn at bat, Daniel Johnson Jr. has to overcome very long odds if he wants to keep his job and hear Jacques Parizeau talk of Quebec’s separation “before, during and after the election” for four more years in Opposition.
Benoit Aubin is managing editor of Le Devoir in Montreal.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.