If the PQ wins, what are the prospects of a referendum?

If Pauline Marois gets her desired mandate, what are the odds of another sovereignty referendum?

(Paul Chiasson/CP)

MONTREAL—Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois has spent the final days of the election campaign urging voters to give her a majority and the chance to form a country.

If Marois gets her desired mandate, though, what are the odds of another sovereignty referendum, and how would relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada change?

The PQ leader, who is leading in the polls, says she would hold an independence vote “tomorrow morning” — if the conditions were right.

That is a giant “if.”

For years, the sovereigntist dream to hold a third referendum has remained elusive, butting up against a cold, hard reality that the support may not be there to win it.

Recent PQ leaders have developed all sorts of formulas to keep the base mobilized when D-Day appears so far on the horizon.

Lucien Bouchard, premier from 1996 until 2001, famously promised to call a referendum once he assembled the “winning conditions.” He never called one. Bernard Landry excited party faithful by talking about achieving sovereignty within 1,000 days — meaning, by 2005.

Polls suggest the sovereigntist side could suffer a drubbing if Marois put the question to voters. The most recent CROP survey put support for sovereignty at 28 per cent — a spectacular drop from the historic levels of the early 1990s.

So, what to do in the face of a mountain of a challenge? Start chipping away.

A PQ government would start making Quebec more independent, one swing of its political hatchet at a time. The PQ doesn’t simply plan to whine about Canada. It wants to start separating, slowly.

“It’s not going to be a referendum or nothing,” said Antonia Maioni, a political scientist at McGill University.

“The idea is to have smaller wins and move towards an eventual, perhaps, referendum. At least she can then go back to her party and say I’m moving to a third referendum.”

The Parti Quebecois plans to pursue two basic tracks to eventually make it happen:

First, Marois says she would ask Ottawa for greater control of numerous areas ranging from foreign policy to copyright law to economic development.

If Ottawa refuses, it would fight.

These scraps will take place in legislative arenas and, in some cases, probably in the justice system all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Each PQ loss would be added by to the list of reasons why Quebec would be better off alone, fanning the flames of the separatist movement.

Second, the PQ would set the mechanics in motion to hold another referendum.

The party has already transferred the responsibility for calling one onto the general public.

Once 850,000 people sign a petition, or 15 per cent of Quebec’s population, the PQ says the public could demand a referendum. Marois plans to establish a new cabinet post that would manage such requests.

To provide herself a little wiggle room, in case the polls aren’t favourable, Marois now says the legislature would have the right to refuse.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the national assembly to decide when there will be a referendum,” Marois told reporters recently.

It’s unclear whether this softer, wait-and-see approach will go down well with the party’s hardline, but there’s also extreme reluctance to call a referendum if it can’t win.

To the party brass, including Marois, it’s taken as an article of faith: the party cannot lose again.

Much of the argument for independence, from the likes of Landry onward, has rested on the idea that the movement carries historical momentum and is therefore inevitable.

The numbers have historically bolstered their narrative.

Support for independence was marginal in the 1960s, grew to 40 per cent in the 1980 referendum, to nearly 50 per cent in 1995 — and therefore, according to the sovereigntist mythology, victory was inevitable the next time.

The fear from more cautious PQ supporters is that a slide backward will destroy their “story.” Unless polls climb dramatically from their current position, then, another isn’t likely.

Even so, a PQ government would mean a shake up in Ottawa and countrywide.

Marois plans to retain Quebec’s seat on the Council of the Federation, the Charest-created body that brings provinces together to tackle common problems.

The PQ would be there, though, “to explain why we are different and why we want all of the power over Quebec,” she said.

For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Parti Quebecois government would present a major challenge and a 180-degree shift from the federalist Charest Liberals, according to Maioni.

“This will be the first time in his mandate that he will be faced not just with a sovereigntist government in Quebec, but a left-leaning government,” she said.

Maioni pointed to an added complication for the Harper Conservatives: they have virtually no presence in Quebec.

“In earlier incarnations of the Parti Quebecois there was something to bounce back off of, whereas now it’s not clear who speaks for Quebec federalists in Ottawa,” she said.

A PQ government could cause even more problems for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, whose party rose to Official Opposition status largely because of its success in Quebec in the last federal election.

But Mulcair has so far avoided wading into key issues in the province, such as the debate over tuition increases. The party’s policy to recognize a 50-per-cent-plus-one referendum decision would also come under renewed scrutiny, if the PQ moves toward holding one.

“He’s going to have make things a lot clearer than they have been,” Maioni said, adding that a PQ win could, perhaps, lead to a resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois at the federal level.

“If the PQ does do well in Tuesday’s election, that means something is going on within the body politic, and that means all the seats they won are going to be less and less safe.”