On the night of the 1995 Quebec independence referendum, twenty years ago yesterday, then Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, who had campaigned for independence, suggested that the Yes side had been defeated by money and the ethnic vote, undoing decades of careful work on the part of the Parti Québécois (PQ) to emphasize its model of civic nationalism and inclusiveness. Support has historically been low among Anglophone Quebecers and those Allophones whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. Taking over after Parizeau’s resignation, incoming Premier Lucien Bouchard said the PQ would not seek a third referendum unless there were “winning conditions”: a popular leader, favourable economic conditions and a clear lead in the polls. The task of the PQ, in both government and opposition, has been to bring about these winning conditions.
The delayed Canadian government reaction to the referendum was the 1999 Clarity Act, which set clear limits on the conduct of any referendum on independence, stating that it must unequivocally refer to independence and not any other form of partnership. It claimed that a Yes vote would not bring automatic independence but would instead trigger Canada’s constitutional amending formula and therefore involve multilateral negotiations among all Canadian provinces. Seen either as federal intrusion into internal democratic arrangements, or as a dose of common sense after confusion about the meaning of sovereignty partnership, the Act reaffirms the right of provinces to hold a referendum on any issue of their choosing, and sets out clearly how a province can take steps to secede from Canada.
Polls showed majority support for sovereignty throughout the year following the referendum but after this the trend turned to one of steady decline. From an all-time high of 64% in 1991 it has dropped to just over 35% before the last provincial election in 2014. Despite returning the PQ to power immediately after the referendum Quebecers have been governed for much of the post-referendum period by the centrist Quebec Liberal Party. What has happened to support for independence?
First, partisan debate is now more crowded in Quebec than it was in the 1980s and early 1990s, with rival parties to the right and to the left The PQ has lost both supporters and politicians to these newer parties and the resulting reshuffling of partisan competition has revealed internal divisions within the PQ, particularly on its economic plans for Quebec.
Second, the leader of the PQ has often served as the de facto leader of the sovereignist movement as a whole and any leader able to combine economic credibility with charisma was an obvious asset. Notwithstanding the popularity of Bouchard’s successor Bernard Landry, the PQ has suffered of late from the absence of a leader who manages to appeal to both the party faithful and the undecided voters or soft nationalists in the economic centre, of whom there are many.
Third, the PQ is caught by its own success. If it fails to govern well then independence seems fanciful. If it governs well, it undoes its own argument, proving that Quebec can pursue a different social project and govern by its own distinct values while remaining within Canada. Quebec governments continue to opt out of federal programmes, instead using federal money to set up provincial alternatives. The PQ recently introduced a manifesto commitment to referendums on specific areas of jurisdiction, rather than on independence as such, as a way to avoid the Clarity Act. The sense is of a party that is keen to take advantage of the considerable autonomy at its disposal and eager to do the best it can while chipping away at federal control rather than risking another referendum. This prompted former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard to claim in 2010 that independence no longer offered anything new to Quebec.
Last, diversity presents a recurrent challenge. The most obvious example of this is the reaction to PQ government proposal for a Charter of Quebec Values before the last provincial election. The Charter sought to promote secularism in public life, called for bans on public sector employees wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as kippahs or hijabs, and called for those providing or receiving a public service to have their face uncovered. Widely criticised as a violation of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination, the proposed Charter was a lightning rod for debates about the accommodation of diversity within Quebec.
In many ways the challenges facing the sovereigntist movement in Quebec continue as they began in 1995, with an uneasy sense of how it can manage linguistic, cultural and religious diversity while building a cohesive campaign for further change.
Ailsa Henderson's book Hierarchies of Belonging: National Identity and Political Culture in Scotland and Quebec is available on Amazon.