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.
While the Parti Quebecois went into the campaign with polls showing them sniffing at majority territory, the stakes shifted on the first weekend with what could well be viewed as the defining moment of the campaign. That’s when Pierre-Karl Peladeau, commander of the enormous communications company Quebecor, which controls 40 percent of media in Quebec, entered the race as a Parti Quebecois candidate, pumping his fist in an impassioned plea for the independent country of Quebec.
That moment, as they say in the political war room, was the game changer, where suddenly it was clear that a vote for the Parti Quebecois could trigger the process toward a referendum once a majority was secured.
Polls in the wake of Peladeau’s battle cry showed a stunning surge for the Liberals, putting them into a potential majority zone.
Marois tried to calm fears, saying she would not launch a referendum until Quebecers were ready for it, though never adequately explained what that meant. In the first of two televised leaders debates the PQ leader was left on the defensive, allowing Couillard to rise above the fray with a plea for jobs, health care, education and reduced debt.
Couillard, though, would be put on the defensive himself in the second debate when he was forced to explain a bank account in a (completely legal) “tax haven” on the Ile of Jersey when he was working as a neurosurgeon in Saudi Arabia. He was also seen to have stumbled on a question that suggested he was not as fierce a defender of the French language as he should be.
Then, this week, a media report suggested Marois’s husband had been involved in some shady fund-raising, which, though vigorously denied, likely slowed whatever momentum the Parti Quebecois leader may have had heading into the final days of the campaign.
Those were the bigger stories, but there were many more nasty tales from a brutish but mercifully short campaign in an election memorable more for the trench warfare than a glorious cause.
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. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.