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April 4, 2014

Trench warfare in Quebec elections

I’ve seen many a Quebec election in my day (I’ll skip the “by cracky”).

Why, I’m old enough to remember the Big One back in ‘76, not exactly as if it was yesterday, mind you, but well enough to remember the collective “freak-out” it provoked outside Quebec when Rene Levesque’s Parti Quebecois swept to power.

I bet a lot of folks south of the border remember that, too. Maybe that election, the one that first brought “separatists” to power in the province, changed their lives.

I remember the most famous cartoon at the time: Terry Mosher of The Gazette’s portrait of Levesque, trademark smoke in hand, saying: “Everybody take a Valium.”

Since November 1976, there have been some milestone elections in this most distinct of provinces. There’s Liberal Robert Bourassa’s triumphant return to power in 1985 following a lengthy hiatus after losing to Levesque.

Then in 1994, Jacques Parizeau, the urbane, British-educated brainiac of the Quebec sovereignty movement, won a majority in the wake of a messy constitutional crisis. From day one as premier, he set to work preparing the ground for a referendum on independence that the Yes side lost by a hair a year later.

We flip ahead to 2003 when Liberal Jean Charest took over and presided over a nine-year period of relative peace, at least on matters relating to Quebec’s place in Canada.

And so we come to the present campaign that leads to Monday’s vote. It may have lacked the nail-biting drama of 1976 and 1994, or the end-of-an era feel to 1985 and 2003, but it had few rivals for its barroom-brawl ferocity, its bizarre episodes, its dramatic reversal of fortunes and ultimately, as one pundit put it, its absence of dreams.

To recap: Parti Quebecois premier Pauline Marois is seeking to replace her 18-month-old minority government with a majority; new Liberal leader Philippe Couillard is hoping to return his party to power and put a stop to the threat of a referendum on sovereignty under the PQ; and, Francois Legault, leader of the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec wants to re-establish his party as a viable alternative to the Parti Quebecois and Liberals.

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