The Quebec sovereignty movement isn’t lacking for martyrs. With two referendum defeats and a decades-long decline in its fortunes, you might say that it is less movement than martyr-creating device—brave soldiers fighting and losing a war of attrition. Nothing wrong with this, of course; there is nothing quite so appealing or politically threatening as an army of true believers railing against the status quo.
The problem is that the movement in general, and the Parti Québécois in particular, have long been part of that very political status quo. The PQ has governed for about half of the past four decades, and has ushered in much of the province’s defining legislation concerning language, workers’ and women’s rights, childcare and education. And yet the party’s main purpose, to divorce Quebec from Canada, is no further along than in 1976. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Publicly, anyway, the belief within the movement isn’t that sovereignty suffers from various demographic and societal troubles—that is to say, the movement is Baby Boomer old, and younger people in general don’t have the zeal of previous generations. Rather, it’s that the benefits of sovereignty aren’t sufficiently talked about.
Naturally, the solution is to talk about it more, which is why the Institut de Recherche sur l’Autodétermination des peuples et des Indépendences nationales announced its own existence this week. It is a mouthful of an organization with an equally large mandate: to “democratize the knowledge about self-determination and independence.”
Its existence is entirely due to PQ Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau, who said he would create such a thing last fall to battle the “campaign of fear” wrought by the federalists. At the time, Péladeau imagined a sovereignist school, where PQ militants would learn to counter the federalist argument. It has since morphed into a research institute that, in the interests of Quebec electoral law, will be “independent from Péladeau, the PQ and any other political group,” as its president Daniel Turp told Maclean’s.
“There are people who doubt the economic viability of sovereignty. We are there to demonstrate its advantages,” Turp said. It will produce reports and academic studies to this effect and analyse other nationalist movements around the world.
It is a fantastic idea. So fantastic, in fact, that Quebec federalists have been doing much the same for their cause for years. Since 2009, l’Idée fédérale has published 20 think tank-esque studies extolling the virtues of federalism, for a mostly Québécois audience. It only follows that sovereignists would do the same thing, as loudly as possible. No one should be deprived of their own propaganda arm. “We want to show the advantages of independence,” Turp told me.
Here’s the thing, though: Sovereignists already have. In fact, contrary to what Péladeau et al. seem to believe, sovereignists have done little except talk about sovereignty. According to this list, there are 12 non-governmental pro-sovereignty groups in Quebec. At least three of these—Institut de recherche sur le Québec, Cap sur l’indépendence and Intellectuels pour la souveraineté—have published reports on the economic and cultural necessity of separation. Collectively, these three list 106 pro-sovereignty reports and publications on their websites, including eight recent profiles of prominent nationalist movements. In addition, there are three nationalist publications and one radio station devoted entirely to the subject. There are three major sovereignist political parties in Quebec and one in Ottawa. No offence to Turp, who is a sharp academic with impeccable credentials, but it’s hard to see what his institute could possibly add.
At times, the desire to talk up the benefits of sovereignty has reached downright goofy proportions. In 2006, the Conseil de la souveraineté du Québec published “Parlons de Souveraineté à l’école” (“Let’s talk about sovereignty at school”), a textbook that its authors hoped would be foisted on Quebec’s most impressionable minds to turn them into mini René Lévesques by the time they were out of short pants. It wasn’t, it didn’t, and the heavily mediatized effort was roundly pilloried for the absurdity that it was.
It’s more likely the institute will suffer a different fate: indifference. It may be status quo, but the PQ’s share of the popular vote has diminished every election since 1994. This, despite a raft of reports, articles and the like pushing the nationalist argument. For the sovereignty movement, the problem isn’t that no one speaks about the advantages of leaving Canada. It’s that it already has, often and loudly.