In November 1976, in the wake of the first-ever election victory by the secessionist Parti Quebecois, Terry Mosher, the cartoonist for the Montreal Gazette, famously sketched leader Rene Levesque saying, “OK. Everybody take a Valium.”
This week, Quebec voters elected a PQ government for the third time, defeating Jean Charest’s Liberals, who had held power since 2003. Charest lost in his own Sherbrooke riding and the next day resigned as party leader.
This time, there’s little feeling that anybody needs to take any medication to cope with the current incarnation of a PQ government under Pauline Marois, who becomes Quebec’s first female premier. By granting her a weak minority government based on less than 32 percent of the popular vote, Quebecers have hardly endorsed a push for a split with the rest of Canada.
After the votes were counted Tuesday night, the PQ had won 54 seats to the Liberals, 50 in the 125-seat National Assembly. The right-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec picked up 19 seats and the socialist-separatist Quebec Solidaire two.
Election night took a dramatic and deadly turn when a man tried to enter the Montreal club where the PQ was celebrating and shot one man dead, wounded two others and set a fire. Police quickly arrested a 62-year-old suspect who seems to be mentally unstable and not part of some organized plot.
The incident cast a shadow of horror over election night, but life goes on and the government elected this week will have to learn to live with the message voters have delivered. The substance of that message is the people of Quebec do not want a referendum on independence.
The 63-year-old Marois campaigned quite openly on her desire to see Quebec become a separate country. In one of the leaders’ debates, she said if she could make Quebec sovereign tomorrow, she would. But she can’t, and chances are she won’t, not in the current climate of relative social peace and prosperity in the province.
That’s a stark contrast with the circumstances of the last two referendums on sovereignty. The first, in 1980, was the culmination of years of upheaval in Quebec that ranged from political battles with Ottawa over the division of powers to bombs and kidnappings. A “soft” question on granting the Quebec government the authority to negotiate sovereignty-association with Canada was defeated by a comfortable margin. The “No” campaign had some powerful forces on its side, not the least of whom was Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The 1995 referendum, with a somewhat convoluted question, came at a time of jacked-up emotion in Quebec. A failed attempt at constitutional reform to accommodate Quebec’s demands rocketed secessionist sentiment to its highest point ever. The No side squeezed out a narrow victory, with the help of the man who would go on to be the premier of Quebec, Jean Charest.
While it is true that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not particularly popular in Quebec and doesn’t have many MPs from the province, he hasn’t offended the province to the point where people want to burn their Canadian passports in the street.
In the campaign, Marois vowed if she were elected, she would immediately go to Ottawa to demand Harper hand over certain powers, hoping that if there is resistance, she can ratchet up public ire. But now, as the head of a government with a paper-thin plurality of seats, she’s not exactly packing a mandate to talk tough with the prime minister of Canada.
Indeed, an interesting phenomenon occurred in the polls during the election: As support for the PQ inched up, support for a referendum and sovereignty plummeted.
The election results are obviously deeply frustrating for the PQ. For a party whose raison d’etre is the separation of Quebec, to be denied the opportunity to advance its agenda is likely to have consequences for the future of the party.
Charest’s resignation may provide the PQ with more time to find a way to govern with a shaky minority. The Liberal opposition will be dealing with its own challenge of finding a new leader.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.