They were scattered around Montreal’s Palais des Congrès last night, quiet and deferential to a fault, politely handing out cards to anyone who would take them. Printed on these cards—well, let’s call them photocopied and apparently hand-cut bits of paper—was the following message:
DURING THIS 16TH CONGRESS
IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE
To the uninitiated, the message is surely puzzling: after all, isn’t achieving sovereignty exactly what the PQ is about? Should we also remind people that water is wet, the sky is blue and Carey Price is somewhat better than last season?
But there’s logic in this missive at the PQ’s 16th congrès national, and it has nothing to do with the cause of sovereignty. Given the usual chest thumping, anger and occasional beheading of the leader that occurs at PQ’s gatherings, the call for unity is not a bad thing to commit to paper.
Yet the friendly pamphleteers needn’t have worried, for the whole event has been a love-in for PQ leader Pauline Marois. Given the party’s usual treatment of its leaders—particularly those who aren’t in power—it is astonishing to see roughly 2,000 dyed in the wool péquistes cheer on a woman who, lest we forget, has failed to capitalize on Jean Charest’s chronic unpopularity throughout the last several months. The got up and whooped, loudly, for no less than five standing ovations during her speech.
The reasons behind her Palais popularity this weekend is likely the result of careful planning. In March 2010, Marois managed to turf the SPQ libre, the très lefty ‘political club’ within the party. Led by former union leader Marc Laviolette, SPQ was staunchly referendum-or-bust. As such, it was a loud and perpetual dissenting voice. But no more. Marois’ team has also reportedly had a hands-on approach to delegate selection across the province in the lead up to this weekend. The result, as we saw last night, was a distinct tendency to react positively to whatever came out of her mouth—or, at the very least, to keep quiet, something to which hardcore péquistes aren’t used.
Then there’s her platform. Marois larded her speech last night with references to sovereignty—hence the standing ovations—and the eventual day when Quebec is its own country—hence the “On veut un pays” (“We want a country”) chant my dad remembers hearing in the days of Lévesque.
“Imagine when we can recoup all our taxes, when we no longer have to subsidize Alberta’s tar sands, Ontario’s automobile industry or Newfoundland’s competition,” she said. “When energy independence joins political independence!”
Sure, it’s boilerplate stuff, but it’s just the kind of thing she needs to placate the diehards in the crowd. Speaking of placating the diehards, the PQ will likely adopt a policy to extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs, meaning that, under a péquiste government, all francophone Quebecers and immigrants would have to attend French-language finishing school. (Perversely, anglo Quebecers would be unburdened by this, giving those of my ilk a distinct advantage over the majority of the population. But I digress.)
The party also adopted a motion allowing it to use public funds to promote sovereignty. Both this and the CEGEP thingy were hotly contested within the party, largely because the more pragmatic péquistes—Sylvain Simard comes to mind—realize that such measures will hurt the PQ’s electability in the next election. Still, it’s significant that Marois has thrown the radical wing of the party a bone, and will likely glide through tonight’s confidence vote like budda.
Of course, that’s the eternal problem within the Parti Québécois: balancing the ideals of the diehards with the reality of getting into power. For the sake of control, Marois is having a good weekend because of the former, but it will inevitably come back to haunt her.