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Quebec’s National Question

The Debate has Begun

Canadian PoliticsQuebec

Nine years after the 1995 referendum and the numbness that followed it, Québec is returning to the debate on the national question. The sovereignty movement has never been a monolithic block behind the PQ. Support for sovereignty (around 45 per cent, according to the latest polls) cuts across political positions from right to left. In such a context, a wide debate on strategy is necessary, a debate that could have repercussions on the next electoral campaign, expected in 2007.

A Question Still at an Impasse

The election of 54 Bloc Québécois (BQ) deputies out of 75 in the House of Commons on June 28 is a response to the sponsorship scandal, whose roots go back to almost immediately after the 1995 referendum campaign (49.4 per cent oui, 50.6 per cent non). During the campaign itself, the federal government spent nine times more money than the Oui committee, in contravention of the Québec law that limited spending by both camps. Having violated Québecers’ right to decide their future for themselves, the federal government went on to flood the province with hundreds of millions of dollars of publicity using, against the regulations of attribution, a network of friends of the Liberal Party to grease the way. This is the Chrétien-Martin response to the constitutional crisis; in addition to strangling provincial budgets and invading their fields of policy jurisdiction, they adopted the Clarity Act. Québec now has 100 political representatives officially in favour of sovereignty, 46 at the Québec National Assembly and 54 at the House of Commons. This is an important reminder that the national question is still at an impasse and that the sovereignty movement is far from dead.

On September 15, Premier Charest returned from the federal-provincial-territorial conference on health with a supposed victory of asymmetrical federalism. Yet health care is a provincial responsibility and Québec already benefits from a number of “asymmetries” (Civil Code, immigration agreements, language, etc.) and it is not the only province with such agreements. The self-determination of a nation cannot be accommodated by simple asymmetries of this sort. The constitutional impasse remains. And, despite the fact that Paul Martin admitted – perhaps a slip? – the existence of the Québec nation, there is nothing forecasting any change on the constitutional front. The approach of the Liberal Parties is no more than a superficial management of the status quo that is unlikely to dupe the people of Quebec.

Political Parties are Revising Their Programs

The PQ has been in opposition for 18 months and the Season of Ideas launched by leader Bernard Landry has left many unsatisfied. There is a serious (and public) questioning of the “sovereignty in stages” approach adopted in 1974.

On September 16, Mario Dumont’s radical-right party, Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), part of the PQ-BQ-ADQ alliance for the Oui in 1995, ended a 10-year moratorium on the national question. The Party pronounced itself in favour of an autonomy orientation and for the establishment of an Autonomous State Constitution without breaking its ties with the federal government, a sort of confederation. This move to self-affirm is based on the historical demands of Québec that have been brought forth by all premiers elected in the last 40 years. However, the Canadian provinces have rejected these demands and the ADQ lacks a strategy to bring its proposal to fruition. This option nevertheless appears to offer the the federal government a sort of last chance.

The Debate Widens

On September 15, an important debate was organized by the Syndicalistes et progressistes pour un Québec libre (Trade Unionists and Progressives for a Free Quebec – SPQ Libre), which included, among others, former Premier Jacques Parizeau (who had just launched his suggestion of a referendum-election) and Amir Khadir, spokesperson for the Union des forces progressistes (UFP). Parizeau proposes the elaboration of a Provisional Constitution by the National Assembly whose eventual adoption via referendum would seal the birth of a sovereign country. A Constituent Assembly would then be convened to draft a Permanent Constitution. The UFP proposes that, upon the election of a sovereigntist party or coalition, a Constituent Assembly would draft a constitution to be submitted to a referendum. This would be the occasion to ensure that sovereignty would be, above all else, a sovereignty of the people. From the start, it marks a rupture from the Canadian constitutional order and monarchy and would set in motion a popular education exercise of participatory democracy. Partial elections were held on September 20 in four provincial ridings and the UFP beat out the ADQ to win third place in two of them: Gouin (eight per cent) and Laurier-Dorion (five per cent). This young party is here to stay and the official support of the Option citoyenne (OC) movement by Françoise David and François Saillant marks a further step in the relationship between these two groups, which have announced their intention to merge in the spring of 2005.

The Sovereignty Council, a trans-party institution whose main mandate is to encourage debate on a strategy for sovereignty, held a National Forum on October 1 and 2 in Quebec City. The theme was Sovereign Governance, and all political currents were represented. Support for a break with “sovereignty in stages” and a mandate for “good provincial government” was unanimous. What’s more, they agreed that the national project was not the purview of a single party, or even of single parties, but rather the project of all the people of Québec. A mandate to start the project must be solicited in the next electoral campaign. As the federal government has shown that it does not respect the right of the Québec nation to decide its own future, legitimacy must be sought from the nation itself and from the international community. Several of those present, notably PQ deputy and former minister Jean-Pierre Charbonneau, called for an electoral coalition in order to avoid splitting the vote given the urgency of the national question. Many grassroots PQ members are open to this idea, but the leadership is not. Before the next election, the Québec Left will have taken another important step in its development. We can expect that it will have considerably increased its strength. The diverse left in English Canada can also make an important contribution by raising awareness among their fellow citizens on the issue of the Québec national question.

Translated by Jill Hanley.

This article appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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