The Parti Québécois, Quebec’s leading sovereignist party, which has twice taken the province to the brink of leaving Canada, is no stranger to bouts of self-destruction. Save for a fellow named Jacques Parizeau, every PQ leader has either been pushed out or resigned under duress brought on by restive party members. At the best of times, leading this party of strong minds and ample egos is like herding cats. When things are bad—say, when the leader appears to be wavering on matters of sovereignty or language—it can be a bloodbath. These purges have spared no one, not even Quebec’s secular saint René Lévesque, who left the party he co-founded thoroughly demoralized in 1985.
On the face of it, then, there is little surprise that the party, which hasn’t had a decent psychodrama since then-leader André Boisclair resigned in 2007, should see four of its prominent MNAs publicly bolt from the party over a matter of principle. No surprise, that is, until you consider the principle in question isn’t one of independence or tongue, but a Quebec City hockey arena that hasn’t even been built yet.
The city, long starved of a professional hockey team, is pining for a return of the NHL. Last month, Quebec City area MNA Agnès Maltais introduced a private member’s bill that would prevent legal action over a deal with Quebecor Inc., which would see the media giant operate a hockey arena built with public funds. (The bill is necessary because the deal may contravene the province’s municipal charter, which states that municipal government cannot subsidize private companies.) PQ Leader Pauline Marois supported the bill—and made it clear that her charges must do the same before the end of the current parliamentary session.
It was too much for three Péquiste stalwarts. “I am leaving the Parti Québécois because of this private member’s bill,” said Louise Beaudoin, who, along with MNAs Pierre Curzi and Lisette Lapointe, announced their resignation at a press conference earlier this week. (The three will sit as Independent MNAs.) The day after, PQ finance critic Jean-Martin Aussant did the same before calling on Marois to step down as leader.
Yet the issue is hardly confined to the would-be home of the Quebec Nordiques. As the near collapse of the Bloc Québécois in last month’s federal election suggests, Quebec’s sovereignty movement is struggling to maintain its long-held monopoly on Quebec’s virtue. Quebecers, seemingly put off by leader Gilles Duceppe’s decades-long negative campaign against the country at large, turned away en masse to the NDP in last month’s federal election—thanks mostly to NDP Leader Jack Layton’s cheery sensibility (and joual-inflected French). Many Péquistes worry the PQ is in for a similar Bloc-style drubbing.
It is difficult to underestimate the effect these resignations will have on the party: Beaudoin, Curzi and Lapointe alone represent nearly a century of experience at the fore (and in the trenches) of Quebec’s sovereignty movement. For Marois, the defection is personal: Beaudoin is (or was) one of her closest friends, and the PQ leader was instrumental in luring her back into politics in 2008. Beaudoin and Curzi were arguably the most eloquent incarnations of the PQ’s old-school firebrand nationalism, which makes Curzi’s words sting all the more for diehard Péquistes. “The cause of sovereignty belongs to more than the PQ,” he said. Translation: the PQ isn’t sovereignty’s be all and end all.
The quartet of PQ defectors all had the same beef: as Curzi put it, Bill 204 “goes against a fundamental principle of democratic life: to allow every citizen to contest a government decision in court.” While several Liberal MNAs have privately voiced their concern as well, the bill is particularly galling to many Péquistes, who pride themselves on the party’s social democratic principles.
Oddly enough, though, Bill 204 was an attempt to regain some of the broad-based popularity of PQ’s yore. By hastening the return of the Nordiques, the PQ would help heal the psychic wound left with the team’s departure for Colorado in 1995. It helps, too, that les Nordiques are a powerful nationalist symbol, a distinctly Québécois bulwark against the cosmopolitan (and, according to one of Curzi’s pet theories, purposefully federalist) Montreal Canadiens.
The PQ could certainly use the boost. Despite two years of corruption, favouritism and conflict of interest allegations plaguing the governing Liberals, recent polls suggest the PQ is only marginally ahead of Jean Charest’s party. Meanwhile, Marois herself remains about as popular as Charest—a dubious feat, given barely one in five Quebecers approve of the premier’s performance, according to a recent poll.
By pinning its hopes on hockey, not sovereignty, the PQ is struggling to find a meaningful narrative to rally Quebecers to its side, says Guy Lachapelle, a Péquiste militant and former party candidate. “It used to be sovereignty for the PQ,” he says. “Now, I think the debate is elsewhere. It’s more of a debate between left and right within the party.” (Marois, a traditional leftist who has torqued somewhat to the right recently, is stuck somewhere in the middle.) “I wonder if these resignations signal a generational change within the PQ. I think there’s an idea that the government can’t do everything. You see that while a lot of the old guard is against Bill 204, many of the younger MNAs are sticking with Marois.”
If, as Lachapelle suggests, many of the young PQ are less married to the left, then Bill 204 certainly tips in their favour. By allying with Quebecor, the PQ puts itself in the good graces of the vast media company whose founder, Pierre Péladeau, was a devoted sovereignist. Péladeau’s son Pierre Karl has given the company a distinctly populist bent; while his political leanings aren’t as clear as his father’s, he remains an influential owner of the largest newspaper and television network in the province.
Helping lure an NHL team to Quebec would have cemented Marois’s stature with both voters and within her party. Only last April, PQ delegates voted 93 per cent in favour of Marois in a leadership review, a score unmatched by anyone in PQ history, Lévesque included. She did so by spending considerable effort (and political capital) to adopt a platform with stricter rules on French education, largely to mollify language hawks like Beaudoin and Curzi.
It didn’t work: Lapointe, who is married to Jacques Parizeau, said Bill 204 “was the last drop in the vase” for a party that “was moving away from sovereignty,” while Aussant said Marois “isn’t the woman people want to follow to build a country.” The radical sovereignist fringe, meanwhile, has already called for Marois’s head—and moved to another party. “Hundreds of our militants are moving toward [leftist party] Québec Solidaire and away from the PQ,” Réseau de Résistance du Québécois president Patrick Bourgeois told Maclean’s recently.
On Tuesday, Charest put the vote on Bill 204 off until the fall session. On the same day, after weeks of defending it, Marois admitted she’d made a mistake in unilaterally supporting it without first consulting her caucus. Clearly, though, the damage is done.
There is a third force that is making everyone nervous. Former Péquiste François Legault has recently returned to the public eye, this time as a reformed sovereignist who has altogether given up on the cause. Legault, who served as minister in two PQ governments, recently founded the Coalition pour l’avenir du Québec, which might be described as a think tank with blatantly obvious political aspirations. For months, Legault has been slow-dripping his right-of-centre pensées about Quebec’s future, leading many to believe the Coalition will serve as a platform for an eventual run at provincial office.
And if the polls are to be believed, he will win handily. In a recent interview with Maclean’s, Legault was keenly aware of his favourable poll numbers, saying they were indicative of the public’s weariness of the sovereignist/federalist debate. “It’s always the same story,” he says. “The PQ says you must vote for the party if you are a real Quebecer, while the Liberals scare you into voting for them by saying the PQ only wants a referendum. Meanwhile, nothing gets done.”
The PQ, meanwhile, finds itself at a crossroads once again. With four MNAs gone and its caucus in disarray, the party of René Lévesque is as restless and as seemingly intent as ever to make life hell for its leader. It is going to be a long, hot summer for Pauline Marois.