Sovereignty issue losing the wind in its sails

By Paul Leavoy

Nine hundred and twenty four days left —– or is it 923 — until Quebec finally separates from the rest of Canada?

It was only two months ago that Quebec Premier Bernard Landry announced Quebec would become a sovereign entity in 1,000 days. If you haven’t noticed much advancement on this front, you’re not alone.

In fact, in the interim, Landry has come under increasing fire for failing to promote a sovereignty agenda of any sort.

“This mobilization isn’t for tomorrow,” Landry announced with confidence at the Sept. 7 Parti Québécois national council in Gatineau. “It starts today.”

In spite of the fervour with which he inaugurated the debate, the tide of sovereignty continues to recede within the PQ and in Quebec itself.

It’s not as if support for sovereignty is at historic lows, as some suggest. Polls indicate support among the Quebec public for a sovereignty-partnership with Canada has only fluctuated moderately in the last five years.

It’s more that many in Quebec believe sovereignty is an outdated idea. While many still want sovereignty, there is a pervasive and submissive feeling that political independence is something that just won’t happen.

“The wind is out of the sails of the sovereignty movement in a big way,” says Andrew Parkin, assistant director for research at the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC).

Indeed, a November 2001 poll conducted by the CRIC indicated that only 39 per cent of respondents said they would vote “yes” in a referendum similar to that of 1995 and only 32 per cent supported the idea of holding a referendum before 2005.

The same poll indicated the public’s belief that Quebec will become an independent country has fallen from 1999 to 2001 from 39 per cent to 23 per cent.

“The sense that it’s going to happen and that it’s a relevant issue is very low,” Parkin says.

Landry’s call for sovereignty bears a striking similarity to Jean Chrétien’s insistence Kyoto be ratified before the New Year. The intention is more than clear, but the planning and implementation are absent.

It was partially this passivity that drove Landry’s former justice minister, Paul Begin, to resign last month and to become the sixth PQ minister to resign in a year. Begin, who had been active in the separatist movement since 1961, fumed that Landry’s wavering on the issue was killing the idea of separation.

Landry’s indecisiveness is the inevitable result of attempting to govern with a separatist mandate.

These governments will always be faced with the balance between good government and political independence

“Since the beginning of the party in 1968, there’s always been the members who say ‘we’re not independentist enough and we’re focusing too much on good government,’ and those who say ‘we should be governing well, seeking as much autonomy as we can in doing so, and that’s what’s most important,’” says Dominique Marshall, a Carleton professor of social policy and Quebec.

Landry is facing the heart of this compromise now. Earlier this month he announced pre-election measures that only reiterated the PQ’s commitment to social programs and infrastructure, but made no mention of sovereignty plans.

Another CRIC poll released earlier this month offers some insight as to why Landry is reluctant to make a commitment to sovereignty.

The poll asked respondents whether they considered themselves federalist, sovereigntist, neither or in between. An alarming 55 per cent chose either neither or in between.

“It says the people don’t want to participate in a polarized debate on this right now,” Parkin says.

It also partially explains the popularity of Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique du Quebec party which doesn’t identify secession as a priority but, at the same time, doesn’t deny the possibility either.

Landry needs a catalyst, a reason to reinvigorate the sovereignty debate in earnest. This is something then-premier Lucien Bouchard sought with the Clarity Bill in 1998, but it failed to mobilize support.

Landry cannot be criticized for offering an emphatic resolution to secede but without offering inspiring reasons to launch the debate in the face of more consequential issues like health care and the environment, the PQ will be unable to rally the public. As Parkin suggests, the prospect is bleak.

Of course, the tide could turn once more. In the mid-‘80s support for sovereignty was almost non-existent. Meech Lake sparked an immediate reversal and by the turn of the decade, support peaked at historic highs.

What is clear is the party, currently third in support polls after Jean Charest’s Liberals and the ADQ, will have to make their intentions obvious before next spring’s provincial elections.