Why independence is not on the ballot in Quebec’s election

Why independence is not on the ballot in Quebec’s election

FOR nearly half a century elections in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec have revolved around a central question: do Quebeckers want to remain part of Canada or create their own sovereign country? The election on October 1st breaks this mould. When IPSOS, a pollster, asked voters for their chief concerns, they did not even include independence on the list of possible answers. Why has support for separatism faded in Quebec?

The Parti Québécois (PQ) has been the standard bearer for independence since it was founded in 1968 by a former journalist, René Lévesque. It won five elections between 1976 and 2012, and held two referendums on independence, losing the second in 1995 by a whisker. Going into each election it was always one of the two main contenders, the other being the federalist Liberal Party of Quebec. Yet in this year’s election campaign, the PQ is not the main rival to the governing Liberals, even though it says it will not hold an independence referendum until 2022. Its spot has been taken by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a conservative party started in 2011 by a former businessman. The CAQ, like the Liberal party, does not support independence. The two main parties that do, the PQ and Québec Solidaire, are well behind the front-runners, jostling for third place.

The arrival of the CAQ on the scene has opened room for debate on matters other than the existential question of independence. It also indicates a general softening in support for separatism. Many of the causes the PQ fought for have already been won—stronger protection for the French language, greater control by the province over taxes (unlike other provinces it collects its own rather than letting the federal government do so), more control over immigration, and separate diplomatic representation abroad. That does not mean the dream has died. But the dreamers tend to be ageing supporters who fought alongside Mr Lévesque to protect rights the younger generation takes for granted. Pundits and pollsters have taken to calling the PQ the party of a generation.

If, as looks likely, the CAQ wins the election, independence will continue to fade from political discourse. François Legault, the leader of the CAQ, was once a cabinet minister in a PQ government. He left the party and founded his own because he thought the seemingly endless debate over independence was diverting attention from more pressing economic issues. No one can say with confidence that the independence movement is dead in Quebec. But in this election it is dormant.

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