Diehard sovereignists turn their backs on the Parti Québécois - Macleans.ca

Diehard sovereignists turn their backs on the Parti Québécois

Martin Patriquin on separation anxiety

Separation anxiety

Paul Chiasson/CP

Jean-Martin Aussant is everything the Parti Québécois wants in its politicians. He is a rare breed of devout sovereignist who, as an economist who has worked for the likes of Morgan Stanley in the U.K. and PSP Investments in Canada, can make both the economic and heartstrings case for Quebec divorcing from the rest of the country. A prolific and adept public speaker, his rallies often begin with the (usually young) crowds chanting his name.

Alas for the PQ, Aussant left the Parti Québécois caucus in 2011 to sit as an independent. The reason, as the fashionably scruffy and necktie-averse 42-year-old says, is because the PQ simply is no longer sovereignist enough. “The PQ has become calculating, manipulating and electorialist, with a total lack of vision,” he says. “It made the political calculation that they can’t win by talking about sovereignty. So they don’t.”

So Aussant formed his own party—and, in the process, kicked off a spat of infighting that threatens to further divide Quebec’s already shaky sovereignist vote. Option nationale came to being in October 2011, and though Aussant lost his seat in the provincial election 13 months later, the party’s focus on the promotion of sovereignty gained the support of former Péquiste premier Jacques Parizeau and his wife, former PQ MNA Lisette Lapointe.

In the wake of last fall’s election, the PQ’s credibility with separatists has only weakened further. In January, one-time PQ language hawk Pierre Curzi became an Option nationale member—put off, he says, by his former party’s timidity on the sovereignty file. Then in February much of the PQ executive in the Maskinongé riding northeast of Montreal resigned en masse because, as one of the ex-executives wrote, “The current party leaders, who say they are sovereignist, don’t devote much time, energy or resources to explain the advantages of having our own country.” Several of the members went straight to Aussant’s Option nationale.

With an inherently unstable minority government, and with the de facto defections of old hands Parizeau, Lapointe and Curzi, the PQ is having to convince its 90,000 members that it remains as dedicated to the cause as ever. Yet Option nationale continues to attract young and educated followers. According to party statistics, the average age of its members is 34, a sweet-spot demographic for any political party. Some 2,000 have signed up since the election, for a total of 8,000 members. “These are people that wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the political process,” Aussant says. “It’s not an exodus from the PQ, but an empowerment of normally apolitical people.”

Aussant isn’t the only disaffected sovereignist to start a party. In 2006 Françoise David, together with activist and microbiologist Amir Khadir, formed Québec solidaire. The party believes the PQ has strayed too far to the right. Today, David and Khadir sit in Quebec’s national assembly, having beat two Parti Québécois stalwarts to get there. Québec solidaire, David says, nearly doubled its membership to 13,000 during last spring’s student protests.

Taken together, Option nationale and Québec solidaire present a new challenge for the Parti Québécois and the sovereignist movement. Effectively, both parties are viable options for the young, sovereignist, lefty idealists whose natural home a generation ago was the PQ. Clearly, this is no longer the case. Option nationale and Québec solidaire garnered a collective 346,000 votes in the last election—enough, according to poll-data aggregator Too Close To Call, to cost the PQ 11 seats and a majority government.

Not surprisingly, the Parti Québécois government has been scrambling to please the disparate bits making up its traditional constituency. For diehard sovereignists, the PQ has promised a new, tougher French language charter and raft of measures attacking “institutional bilingualism.” For students, Pauline Marois’s government cut planned tuition hikes and topped up the province’s student loan program—a charge in part led by Leo Bureau-Blouin, the 21-year-old PQ MNA and one-time darling of the student movement.

To please members of its left flank who might otherwise stray to Québec solidaire, the PQ placed a moratorium on shale gas development in the province. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau presented a zero-deficit budget in November—an apparent nod to those economic nationalists tempted by the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir.

Above all, the party has called for sovereignists to unite under the PQ banner. “The PQ is the best vehicle for Quebec sovereignty,” says PQ Minister Alexandre Cloutier. “We talk about it everyday. Not one day goes by that I don’t broach the subject how Quebec would be better as its own country.”

But the problem isn’t individual Péquistes, Aussant says. It’s the PQ itself. “I have no doubt that my colleagues in the PQ are as sovereignist as me, but the institution of the party when it comes to elections has decided that it doesn’t want to run on sovereignty,” he says, calling the PQ “schizophrenic.”

As the PQ attempts to satisfy disgruntled diehard sovereignists, the reality is that group itself has been shrinking. The loss of two referendums, and the plain fact that with a minority PQ government there isn’t a likely third on the horizon, has tempered the collective desire to pursue a separate Quebec. It has roughly 30 per cent support in the province, according to various polls; in one, published a month before the election, sovereignty ranked 10th on a list of priorities amongst Quebecers.

Aussant and David are convinced they can sell Quebecers on the many virtues of sovereignty. Yet they may spread the ranks of sovereignists, already an endangered breed, too thin by doing so.

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Diehard sovereignists turn their backs on the Parti Québécois

  1. The PQ may be losing soveriegntists, but the sovereigntists have one fatal flaw — they would not survive on their own as a nation. Their belief is still that Canada will subsidize them — and we won’t. Thus endeth the transfer payments, and all the money to go into whatever promises that the sovereigntists make. There won’t be enough internal provincial income to pay the provincial bills, and no other country on this planet is going to get involved with the assinine policies (language police? we’ve recently seen what they’re REALLY about!) that the sovereigntists will insist upon (overtures were made to both France and the US, and rebuffed). The sovereigntists are living in their own dream utopia, and failing to face reality. The PQ doesn’t have too much to worry about, except the backlash from a disillusioned electorate that finds itself falling farther and farther behind the Rest of Canada.

    • The PQ may be losing soveriegntists, but the sovereigntists have one fatal flaw — they would not survive on their own as a nation.

      They’ve got bigger problems than that. They can’t even form a MINORITY government in Quebec without winning the support of voters who don’t support sovereignty.

      • The very same used to be said to Wilfrid Laurier when promoting the independence of the Dominion of Canada from the Empire. They were wrong then and are most likely in the future…

        • I’m pretty sure that’s not true, or at least not accurate.

          Laurier entered federal politics 7 years AFTER Confederation. He didn’t become leader of the federal Liberal Party until 20 years after confederation. Even if it’s true that people told Laurier that he’d never achieve greater autonomy from Britain for Canada because the people of Canada did not support it (and I’d like to see evidence that anyone even polled the people, let alone that they demonstrated that they didn’t support greater autonomy), it’s nevertheless the case that gaining greater autonomy for a post-1867 Canada is a fundamentally different proposition than gaining independence for Quebec in the 21st Century. What’s more, even though the bar for achieving full autonomy for a post-Confederation Canada was much lower than the bar for achieving Quebec independence is, it still arguably wasn’t achieved until 63 years after Laurier’s death.

  2. How do Quebec sovereignistes intend to get around the currency problem? The European crisis has demonstrated that a sovereign country must have its own currency.

    Sovereignty means an massive economic collapse for both Quebec and Canada because of a currency crisis. Neither the Canadian nor US dollar is a solution. Quebec automatically becomes Greece.

    In the current state of the world economically, a heavily indebted country introducing a future is inviting economic disaster.

    The world’s economic situation has made Quebec sovereignty cultural and economic suicide. And the collateral damage in the rest of Canada would be significant.

  3. Option Nationale is often portrayed as simply a ”diehard” version of the
    PQ. I don’t think the young members of ON are as interested in language regulation and identity rhetorics as the péquistes are though. When Aussant made videos in spanish and english to reach out to those groups that are considered ‘lost causes’ by the PQ, the reaction from members was overwhelmingly positive. They want independence because they think nations should take care of their own business, not because ‘les maudits anglais’.

    • In doing so, Option nationale is light years ahead of Canada who never asked for, never voted for its independence from the British Empire. Which explain an artificial political structure answering to a foreign head of state, bearing a national identity and symbols stolen from a conquered nation…

    • I might agree with you except for two things: this weekend they picked the head of the RRQ as a member of their leadership committee.
      You’ll remember Patrick Bourgeois for his role in staging protests against Prince Charles, threatening retribution if the re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham went ahead, sending threatening letters to Liberal supporters in Quebec, and numerous anti-English tirades on his blog.

      The second thing: keynote speaker, Jacques Parizeau, spent a lot of time saying that anglophone rights would disappear in an independent Quebec.

      In my mind the entire separation movement cannot ever be separated (heh) from its anti-English roots.

  4. Until quebec can stand on its own feet, without always demanding more money, they should just …be quiet. The transfer payments are only a small part of it. All the fake “bilingual” jobs will also have to end and boy..there are tens of thousands of them.

    • Exactly the low level, unsubstantiated allegations served by loyalists to Wilfrid Laurier campaigning to severe the Dominion of Canada from the British Empire… Ignorance and fear of the unknown as advisers…

      • If Pauline Marois is the Wilfrid Laurier of Quebec independence, then the separatists are even worse off than I thought!

    • I am close to sixty will not happen in my lifetime

  5. Enough, already. Like, who cares? They never had it so good!

  6. Frankly, this is great news. Roughly 30% of Quebeckers actually support sovereignty (to one degree or another). If that 30% has three parties to choose from, so much the better.

    There’s a REASON the PQ isn’t as vocal about sovereignty as they might otherwise be. You need the votes of those who don’t support sovereignty to even form a minority government in Quebec these days. As a federalist, I hope that these more “radical” separatist parties enjoy a great deal of success. The more votes that Option Nationale and Québec Solidaire win, the less likely an independent Quebec becomes.

    • They got their minority by a hair. To date, they have been very successful at getting a high percentage of the population ticked off in one way or another. I am pretty sure they will fall at the first budget.

      • They wouldn’t even have had this minority were it not for the Quebec Liberal . Party’s years spent refusing to have an inquiry on corruption. Once Charest finally gave in, it was way too late. A large part of the 27% of voters who stood behind the CAQ no-talk-of-soveignty-for-ten-years platform are federalists who didn’t want to vote for Charest. In other words, the federalist vote was split too, at least among francophones.

        It was a smaller echo of how Quebecers turned away from the Liberal Party of Canada after the sponsorship (and corruption) scandal.

        Young people still don’t vote much, not matter how much the student strike issue has been played up in conjunction with the perceived upswing in “Yes to sovereignty” resulting from the PQ’s election.

  7. Most Quebecers are a pack of spoiled brats that take millions of Canadian $$ every year and in one form or another vote in some sort of sovereignist party.
    Enough already–aren’t the rest of Canadians sick and tired of this forever ongoing situation that are paid for by our taxes?

  8. In the last election, 40% of Quebeckers voted for one sovereignist party or another. In a recent February poll, 37% of Quebeckers (50% of Francophones) would have voted yes in a sovereignty referendum (even more than what was the case only a few weeks before the 1995 referendum which ended up getting basically 50% of the votes).

    So I don’t know what this “rare breed” business is (last time I checked, 37% is not quite “rare” by any standard) but Patriquin, instead of just being a shill for the Anglo press, paid to tell them whatever they want to hear about the society which they so ironically refuse to recognize as distinct, should simply report the facts without such a pathetically transparent bias.

    • During the election polls by Leger showed that a third to one-half of PQ voters had no interest in separation.

      And I don’t know what polls you are looking at, but the one I saw in February showed that support for sovereignty had dropped to 45% in Saguenay Lac St. Jean — an area considered the heartland of the separatist movement, and an area where support for sovereignty has never before dipped lower than 50%.