Quebec

READING THE TEA LEAVES

Polls may show separatism rising, but there’s no crisis yet, says BENOIT AUBIN

May 9 2005
Quebec

READING THE TEA LEAVES

Polls may show separatism rising, but there’s no crisis yet, says BENOIT AUBIN

May 9 2005

READING THE TEA LEAVES

Quebec

Polls may show separatism rising, but there’s no crisis yet, says BENOIT AUBIN

WAS THAT SCRATCHING under the bed? And rattling in the attic? The old bogeymen of national unity, who were to be stamped out by the sponsorship program, staged a much-noticed comeback last week. New public opinion polls in Quebec showed Liberals in disarray and the Bloc Québécois poised to capture half the vote in the province. The erosion of the Liberals’ support—from 34 per cent in the last election to 23 per cent according to the last CROP Inc. poll—could translate into as many as 60 of the province’s 75 seats going to the separatist Bloc, leaving as few as 15 for the Liberals, compared to the 21 they currently hold. Two opinion polls also showed support for Quebec sovereignty rising—with one, by Léger Marketing Inc., suggesting that the Gomery furor has pushed it over the majority threshold to 54 per cent.

So, what’s Canada to do? Hide under the bed? Beg Quebec to leave, now? Push the panic button? Well, hold the flags—Meech Lake, this ain’t. Back when that constitutional reform was finally rejected, in 1990, agitation was such in Quebec that, had he decided to follow his flock, then-premier Robert Bourassa could have easily become the first president of the new republic. At the time, Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a close adviser to Bourassa, coined this memorable line: “Quebec and Canada can live in peace and harmony forever, as long as they don’t talk about the same thing at the same time.” But now? “You don’t feel any of that agitation,” Rivest told Maclean’s last week. Indeed.

While Canada Day may not get huge crowds in Montreal, sovereignty is not the first choice

Interviews with various specialists and regular Quebec voters suggest there is no urgent national unity crisis to deal with. The outrage in Quebec over the dubious sponsorship program—pretending to save national unity with flags, propaganda and leaky budgets— is not morphing into a nationalist earthquake threatening to break up the country, at least in the short term.

But what about those polls? Are we having a Meech moment: speaking about the same thing at the same time? Let’s talk about the old semantics—or rather, revisit them. “Souverainiste” does not translate well into “separatist,” for starters. The latter conjures up a hostile plot whose main objective is to break up the federation. Quebecers know hostility to Canada is not a driving factor. For most, “souveraineté” is the issue of an unending debate over how best to protect their micro-culture—within, or without? Likewise, “national unity” sounds like a decent, honest objective in English Canada. But for many Quebec voters, the connotation is: the straitjacket inside which all provinces are considered equal and similar—while Quebecers consider themselves distinct, at least.

In peacetime, says CROP polling expert Claude Gauthier, “we have to be careful while assessing results. Some say they would vote yes [to sovereignty, along with—always— an association with Canada] out of a sense of identity; for others, it’s expressing an ideal, or utopia; or it’s a bargaining stance. There are hard yes’s, and soft ones as well.”

According to Jean-Marc Léger, CROP’S rival, his company’s poll “does not say Quebecers are out to break up Canada. Sovereignty is clearly not their first choice.” Sure, 54 per cent now support “souveraineté ’’—but of those, 56 per cent also said they want Quebec to continue being part of Canada. Only 40 per cent of sovereignty supporters say no: your “purs et durs” hard-core separatists who don’t mind breaking up Canada. That puts the hard-liners at only 21 per cent of the total population.

But there is widespread anger, and it is palpable. The Léger poll said 76 per cent of Quebecers feel “betrayed” by the Chrétien government. CROP found that 75 per cent say they have little or no confidence in politicians. So people are disappointed, mad, and they want to punish the Liberals—not destroy Canada. You don’t need polls to know that. Just hit the streets of Montreal at lunchtime, and you’ll hear it all.

“To punish the Liberals, voters will support the Bloc, but mostly as a protective measure,” says Michel Couture, vice-president, sales, for a software company. “But people here would be demanding much better reasons to vote for separation further down the line.” According to Geneviève Gauthier, the HR director of a shipping company, “We can be outraged that these people thought they could skirt the issue of constitutional reform by blowing money around and planting flags everywhere, but I don’t see how that could help turn a federalist into a new Quebec separatist.” And, says Mélanie Pagé, a thirtysomething self-proclaimed souverainiste: “I hope the Gomery inquiry will make everyone want to reform how the federation is set up and run, because that’s an issue for other provinces

as well. But I don’t see why Quebec would want to separate over the scandal.”

The rest is, well, politics. “I don’t think the scandal brings any new arguments in favour of separation,” says Jean-Herman Guay, a political science professor at the Université de Sherbrooke. “It may improve the separatists’ outlook somewhat, but it doesn’t mean a shoo-in for them.”

‘WE HAVE to be

careful assessing results. Some say they would vote yes, but there are hard yes’s and soft ones.’

The Parti Québécois is not in good shape, divided over leadership and referendum strategy. Both issues will be tackled during a much-anticipated “national” convention in June. Joseph Facal is a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister and still a committed indépendantiste. “If the PQ does not state clearly, soon, that a vote for them equals a vote for sovereignty, then they’ll be told

they won’t have a clear mandate to proceed when they come back in power,” he told Maclean’s. But, of course, there are others in the PQ who believe that such a clear statement could be enough to help Jean Charest stay in power.

Claude Castonguay is no separatist, but the former senator and Liberal cabinet minister is an angry Quebecer too. “I don’t know what Mr. Chrétien thinks we are,” he says. “But thinking he could bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold with propaganda and flags is offensive and upsetting.” Ah—there’s a big part of the problem: we’ve wanted to forget it, but Quebec has not signed the Constitution of 1982, and subsequent attempts at solving the problem have failed. “And after each attempt, a number of Quebec voters have joined the ranks of the souverainistes,” Castonguay says.

So: Meech, The Sequel? Distinct society? Special status? Decentralization? Associated states? “What’s clear in the poll,” Léger says, “is the wake-up call. Canada shouldn’t run the risk of letting another referendum take place.”

Constitutional talks, anyone? CTl