Pauline Marois has just fired the first shot in the next Quebec referendum campaign.
In a pre-election speech in Shawinigan on February 5, the Quebec premier and Parti québécois leader said her government, if re-elected this spring, would hold a vast public consultation on a White Paper on the future of Quebec. While refusing to reveal her strategy, she said a referendum would be held at an “opportune time.”
“I am a sovereigntist. And should the people elect me and my government I will have the possibility to [achieve] sovereignty,” she said after her speech. Current polls indicate she will indeed be re-elected.
In Trois-Rivières the same day, Mme Marois also clearly laid out the question she will put to Quebecers:
“We want Quebec to become a country. We must examine all options. What status will allow us to preserve our language over a period of 10, 20 or 50 years? That of a Canadian province or that of a country? To me, it’s clear: the only path that assures the future of French is that of a country, a French-speaking country in America!”
This is the fundamental existential question that Quebec francophones have always faced. Every generation since 1760 has pondered this question, openly or tacitly. So far, every time they have had to choose, Quebecers have chosen Canada. But in the last Quebec referendum in 1995, a clear majority of francophones voted for Quebec sovereignty. Then-PQ premier Jacques Parizeau spoke nothing but the truth in saying that his referendum had been lost owing to the “ethnic vote,” his politically incorrect term for non-francophones in Quebec.
As a bilingual anglophone living in Quebec, it distresses and depresses me to see the one-sidedness of the current debate.
An old political adage says you can’t beat something with nothing. But that is precisely what Quebec federalists have largely been doing since 1995.
Virtually no one speaks up for Canada in Quebec. Nobody defends federalism, or explains its virtues and advantages to today’s Quebecers. With rare exceptions, such as André Pratte at La Presse, Quebec’s francophone media personalities are anti-Canada, either overtly or surreptitiously.
One might expect our 75 federal MPs to be spokespersons for federalism or defenders of Canada. But no; from 1993 until 2013, most Quebec MPs belonged to the Bloc québécois, which actively exalted independence. Now that over two thirds of our MPs belong to the NDP, apparently the best we can hope for is silence on this issue. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair is no great federalist tribune, while the five Conservative MPs are largely invisible. True to his roots, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is, by default, thrust into a lacklustre semblance of Captain Canada. But he can’t do the job alone.
Unless this changes, we are setting ourselves up for a nasty shock. A referendum campaign is just a single-issue, single-constituency election campaign. As in a general election, much depends on the popularity of the opposing leaders. Under Quebec’s referendum law, the Yes side is headed by the premier, while the leader of the No side is the leader of the opposition. This would presumably pit Pauline Marois against Quebec Liberal leader Philippe Couillard, who will have just lost the 2014 election to premier Marois.
What should federalists be saying to francophone Quebecers?
First, although essential, economic facts and arguments are not enough. Nor are occasional and fleeting public appearances by federal ministers.
As prime minister Diefenbaker used to say, elections turn on things of the spirit.
Francophone Quebecers must be reassured that they are recognized as original founders and co-builders of Canada, that they are respected by other Canadians, and that they strongly supported by Ottawa and other provinces in their wish to live fully in French within Canada.
Prime minister Harper’s best electoral showing in Quebec (10 seats in 2006, with 24.6% of the popular vote) came after he had supported a resolution in the House of Commons recognizing that the Québécois formed a nation within a united Canada.
Quebecers must be reminded of the two reasons why the Fathers of Confederation chose a federal system. First, Quebecers have full democratic sovereignty in their own province, with complete legislative autonomy in fields crucial to the survival and strength of their language and culture. They must be reminded how well, against all odds, this system has worked to their advantage.
But they must also be reminded that, in addition to controlling their own government in Quebec, our federal system has allowed them to play a major role in Canada as a whole, in the tradition of Laurier, St. Laurent, Trudeau, Mulroney and Chrétien. In effect, under Canadian federalism Quebec both has its cake and eats it — or as the French say, both the butter and the butter money.
To vote for Quebec sovereignty now, at a time when Quebec has never been stronger or more successful, would be to turn their backs on their history, their ancestors, and the great country we have all built together.
Peter White, a member of the Conservative Party since 1958, was Principal Secretary to prime minister Brian Mulroney.