“The PQ is a party of ideas. We discuss and we discuss passionately. I hope there will continue to be debates over ideas within the Parti Québécois.”—Jacques Parizeau, November 16, 2008
This seemingly innocuous sound bite was the extent of Parizeau’s election gift to Quebec federalists earlier this month. Uttered during a remarkably subdued appearance on Tout le monde en parle, a popular Sunday evening talk show, Parizeau was explaining to host Guy A. Lepage (and nearly 1.5 million Quebecers watching at home) why the PQ always seems to be at war with itself.
Surely, Parizeau’s appearance was a minor disappointment for Jean Charest, who has used Parizeau’s bombastic and untimely sorties to win electoral favour in the past. For the governing Liberals, it might have been better if the old warhorse had repeated his notorious contention about how money and the ethnic vote cost the PQ the 1995 referendum, as he did the day before the election debate in 2003. But if there is any consolation for Charest, it was the inherent truth in Parizeau’s words. The PQ is a party of ideas, and as such is often more concerned with being righteous than being in power. Its ability to churn through leaders—five in the last eight years—is testament to the party’s perpetual civil war, one that already threatens to engulf current leader Pauline Marois.
At its best, the PQ is a gloriously mismatched alliance of blue- and white-collared union types, students, businessmen, artists and academics who have next to nothing in common aside from a dream. It is a party formed in conflict, the product of a shotgun marriage between the outright separatist faction of Rassemblement pour l’indépendance national (RIN) and René Lévesque’s comparatively moderate Mouvement souveraineté-association. Péquistes leaders have often thrived amidst this conflict. When René Lévesque took the stage following the PQ victory in 1976 and declared, “J’ai jamais pensé que je pouvais être aussi fier d’être Québécois,” (“I never thought I could be so proud to be Québécois”), he endeared himself to a generation of Quebecers, sovereignist or otherwise. During the 1995 Yes campaign, Lucien Bouchard brought Quebec’s collective imagination to a rolling boil with a series of proud, furious, invective-laden speeches, delivered mere days after having a leg amputated. Even Parizeau, whose own appeal didn’t stretch much past the party base, could still stump decently enough when sufficiently compelled by his own beliefs.
Between the highs, though, lie the inevitable hangover. Governing is a pragmatic exercise, and there is no pragmatism in dreams. With the voting public lacking the will to stomach another referendum, péquistes leaders are forever devising ways to placate the loud, obstinate but powerful fringe of the party that wants to govern a country at the expense of all else. Whether it’s Lévesque’s beau risque, Pierre-Marc Johnson’s affirmation nationale, Bouchard’s conditions gagnantes, Bernard Landry’s 1000 jours or André Boisclair’s coffre d’outils, the PQ has found any number of excuses to put off a referendum for the sake of electoral victory. It rarely works: save for Parizeau and Landry, every PQ leader has left the job with a variety of knives wedged into their backs.
Which brings us to Pauline Marois. This tenacious woman, who became PQ leader on her third attempt, managed to remove the obligation of having a referendum within the first term of a PQ government. At the convention last year, the provision—first introduced in 1977, removed in 1985 following much protest, then reinstated in 2005—fell off with hardly a peep. In fact, the hardline rump of the party, the so-called purs-et-durs, has been uncommonly quiet since Marois’ return last year. Following the 2007 election, in which the PQ suffered its worst defeat in more than 20 years, there seemed a willingness to let Marois build the party back up.
Like Lévesque, who went to the polls not long after losing the 1980 referendum, Marois aligned her party behind her by promising a return to power and responsible governance. It worked for Lévesque; he handily won the subsequent election in 1981. But sovereignty is a stubborn dream and a PQ victory in the coming election would serve only to reawaken it. Without the ability to foist a referendum onto the voting public, however, the party hoi polloi would find itself dependent on the whims of its leader to further the cause. Marois had made it clear that this is unlikely in her first or even second term as premier, setting the stage for yet another “debate over ideas.” Marois has even come up with a slogan. Rather than a referendum, a PQ government, she said earlier this year, would bring about a “national conversation” on sovereignty, by dispatching PQ MNAs and sovereignist luminaries around the province to extoll the wonders of a sovereign Quebec. She would also institute 11 “gestures of national governance,” including the adoption of a Quebec constitution and citizenship. The goal is to whip Quebecers into a such a nationalist froth that they cannot help but want to separate from Canada.
Sound familiar? That’s because it is. Lucien Bouchard touted a similar idea in 1995, when he said Quebecers’ collective distaste for the Canadian status quo would eventually create “winning conditions” for a sovereign Quebec. Only then, he said, would he call a referendum. He didn’t get the chance. Six years later, Mr. Bouchard left the party, cast out by the very hardliners he sought to mollify. In 1995, he was deemed the saviour of the sovereignist movement; today, Bouchard is regularly booed at the PQ conventions.
Already, Marois’ grand unification of the PQ is showing cracks. The FTQ, the province’s largest union confederation, didn’t endorse the party in the upcoming election. SPQ Libre, the PQ’s only designated ‘political club’ and respite for party hardliners, recently published a blistering attack on Marois’ decision to shelve the referendum option. “A referendum is to sovereignty what a deadline is to journalism,” wrote SPQ Libre’s Marc Laviolette and Pierre Dubuc. “Without the due date of a referendum, the sovereignty movement will likely scatter, fracture and whither.”
Not coincidentally, six sovereignist parties have formed in the last three years, the largest of which, Québec solidaire, received roughly four percent of the popular vote in 2007. The more nationalist of these new parties decry the PQ’s lack of sang froid on the issue of sovereignty. Québec solidaire et al. won’t likely steal a significant number of votes, much less a seat, from the péquistes. However, they have already robbed the party of young volunteers, delegates, diehards and other assorted true believers that have long constituted the lifeblood of the party. “There is a civil war within the separatist movement, and it’s becoming more and more explosive,” Patrick Bourgeois, editor and publisher of nationalist newspaper Le Québécois, told a Montreal newspaper recently.
Still, in the short term, things look good for Marois. She performed extremely well during last week’s televised debate. At the very least, she is poised to return her party to Official Opposition on Dec. 8. Should she stifle Charest’s pursuit of a majority government, she could rightfully question the wisdom and expense of his election call during a time of widespread economic turmoil. Should she win, she would be the first elected female premier. Inevitably, though, she will have to face head on what has burdened nearly every other péquiste leader before her: the Parti Québécois itself. Parizeau was right. The PQ is a party of ideas; as such is too unruly a beast for anyone to control it for very long. Her political foes, plentiful as they may be, won’t likely spell the end of Pauline Marois. Her own party is all too adept at doing that on its own.