A quarter century is a long time in the life of a human being. Twenty-five years ago, the Cold War was at deep-freeze levels, Wayne Gretzky was barely a teenager, computers were an oddity to most people, MuchMusic didn’t exist, Joe Clark hadn’t yet become Tory leader for the first time, and the Montreal Canadiens were a great hockey team. And many of the athletes and entertainers we now watch hadn’t been born.
Next year marks a quarter century since the first election win of the Parti Québécois thrust the sovereignty debate onto the front burner. What’s most amazing is how many PQ politicians from that era are still at it today. The present Quebec cabinet has several such holdovers, including deputy premier Bernard Landry, and not a week goes by without Jacques Parizeau pulling a Celine Dion—emerging yet again from self-imposed retirement to demand attention.
But watching the televised resumption of sittings of the House of Commons, it’s hard not to conclude sovereigntists have managed what once seemed unthinkable: they’ve made their project unutterably boring. Even, perhaps, to themselves. Watching a Bloc Québécois member talk about sovereignty in Parliament is akin to family dinners where a slightly dotty aunt keeps butting in on the conversation. Everyone pretends to listen, and then continues with their previous topic (say hello, Jane Stewart). Even BQ members appear to be going through the motions: as they near the end of their inevitable feigned tirades about the Liberals’ so-called clarity bill, they’re already half-sliding back into their seats.
Similarly, the uproar over the bill that sovereigntists had hoped for hasn’t happened. Some polls show Liberal support in Quebec has actually marginally increased recently, and fewer than 100 people showed up for the start of provincially sponsored hearings that were supposed to stoke ire against the bill. Other than Parizeau and a few PQ hardliners, hardly anyone wants another referendum soon—especially Lucien Bouchard. His former speechwriter, Jean-François Lisée, last week gave forth with a book that proposes Quebec postpone discussing sovereignty, and push Ottawa to give it more powers instead. More constitutional debate? Now, there’s a bold new concept.
One reason for the ennui is that Quebec sovereignty has morphed through so many incarnations that it’s difficult to figure out what it’s supposed to mean. In early days, the PQ depicted an independent Quebec as a sort of North American Sweden—but with better food, of course. It would stay out of NATO, tilt firmly to the left in its policies and keep a bare minimum of relations with Canada. Whether Quebecers liked those ideas or not, it was clear how things would change after a Yes vote.
Compare that to the all-encompassing way sovereigntists push their product now—in essence, promising voters that if they vote Yes, nothing of substance will change. As in the 1995 referendum, the PQ suggests a wimpy Sovereignty Lite, by which an independent Quebec would share economic and political ties with the rest of Canada, trade freely with everyone in sight and continue to use the Canadian dollar.
That strategy was designed to soothe middle-of-the-road voters and, in the short term, it did so. But over time, it stripped sovereigntists of an essential tool: emotion. The obvious question for everyone, starting with Quebec voters, is this: if the rest of Canada is such a repressive, oppressive and abusive place, why keep close ties? And if it isn’t, why leave? The frustration over that dilemma drives some sovereigntists to unbecoming shrillness: Daniel Latouche, a longtime activist, recently said the manner in which English-Canadians approve of the clarity bill reminds him of places like violenceriddled Serbia and Albania. Yeah, sure. It’s also a lot harder to inflame young people with tales of past injustice. The famous-in-Quebec, largely apocryphal tale of the fat-ladyat-Eaton’s-who-wouldn’t-speak-French doesn’t mean much when Eaton’s itself no longer exists. And if you’re a Quebec francophone about to come of voting age, you’ve always lived in a province where French is the only official language, and the 1980 referendum and 1982 constitutional patriation fight took place before you were born.
These days, the hot topic among those who still discuss Quebec politics is when—rather than if—Bouchard will quit his job and move with his family to California. Should that happen, there’s no successor whose star power comes close. A similar dilemma would await federalists if Jean Charest quit as Liberal leader. As elsewhere, the best and brightest in Quebec aren’t entering politics anymore.
It’s tempting to declare sovereignty dead—or at least “resting,” in the euphemism of the old Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch. But it’s worth recalling that the last time support hit such low levels was just before the 1995 referendum, which the sovereigntists then almost won. That said, its hard to find many people who fret about a resurgence. John Kenneth Galbraith joked during a lunch last summer that when he meets Canadians and can’t think of what to talk about, he asks about Quebec, “secure in the knowledge there will be plenty to say, but nothing ever really new.” After the 1976 PQ win, Terry (Aislin) Mosher, editorial cartoonist at The Gazette, drew a famous cartoon that depicted René Lévesque, trousers drooping at the ankles, urging calm by declaring: “Everybody take a Valium!” Now, the reverse has become true: sovereigntist speeches put everyone to sleep.
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