Why sovereignty is fading

what’s behind the crisis rattling the PQ and the Bloc

Indépendance - le peuple québécois s'approche toujours davantage du but!

Many people are trying to determine the source of the crisis shaking the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois. Some point to the Jack Layton effect, which caused the collapse of the Bloc during last spring’s federal election, and to the poor leadership of Pauline Marois and a lack of discipline among PQ activists and MNAs. But these reasons do not explain the existential malaise that has gripped the sovereignist rank and file. I would like therefore to hazard my own guess as to the main causes of the setbacks experienced by the Bloc and the PQ.
Globalization: The phenomenon of globalization is characterized, in part, by the creation of large economic and political entities, such as the European Union; increased interdependency among governments; and the development of movements and trends that favour stronger co-operation among the world’s societies. But globalization does not entail solely centripetal forces; it also has centrifugal forces that lead to the dismantling of existing states, demonstrations of nationalism, separatism and regionalism, and a higher degree of decentralization of certain political systems.
It would therefore be wrong to argue that globalization makes Quebec sovereignty completely irrelevant; even now, new states are emerging or trying to emerge on the international scene. But it probably makes it less appealing in the eyes of many Quebecers. They are partaking in global trends, and find the national debate in Quebec tiresome and repetitive. Young people seem more interested in the environment (climate change, new renewable energies, etc.) and in education (freezing or unfreezing of tuition fees, debt limits, etc.) than in Quebec sovereignty per se.
Demographic transformation: The newest generation of Quebec voters never experienced the patriation of the constitution of 1981-82, the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, or the failure of the Charlottetown Agreement, much less the 1970 October Crisis or the referendum of 1980. The same is true of immigrants who have settled in Quebec in recent years. They are full-fledged Quebecers, but their political references differ from those of Quebecers who experienced these events.
Plan B: The federal government’s get-tough-with-separatism stance of the later 1990s, known as Plan B, led to the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1998 reference on secession of Quebec and to the Clarity Act, enacted by Parliament in 2000.
Quebec sovereignists have always underestimated the effects of Plan B on their project. Whether they like it or not, Plan B – which challenged the legality of secession on the basis of a simple referendum majority, and insisted on Ottawa having a say in the wording of any future referendum question – clearly marked the path to Quebec becoming a sovereign state. It also got many Quebecers thinking, especially those who had believed in a “soft sovereignty” that would be quickly recognized internationally and easily achieved without obstruction from the federal government, the other provinces, or the Canadian people in general.
Attachment to Canada: Another factor in the difficulties of the sovereignty movement is the attachment that many Quebecers feel to Canada. This may seem simplistic, but it is real.
For many Quebecers, Canada is more than a political system. It is also a country that they love and of which they are proud. They feel that they have contributed to the success of this country, which today is highly regarded internationally. The relationship of these Quebecers with Canada is therefore not merely functional, technical or instrumental. It is also emotional, even affectionate.
Twice in the past Quebecers have, by a majority, declined to embark on the road to secession. They have preferred to maintain their connection to Canada, despite the fact that they will always be a minority within it. That is because allegiance to a country is not based solely on reasons of identity; economic security and the preservation of social cohesion and quality of life are also part of the equation.
Many Quebecers share Canadian values. They see themselves reflected in Canada. They want to remain Canadians, but they want to be Canadians in their own way – in other words, without losing any of their identity. They consider themselves to be both Quebecers and Canadians, and do not see these two allegiances as incompatible in any way – and rightly so. However, they want to be recognized for who they are – namely, a society that has unique characteristics in North America.
Of course, the reasons I have cited to explain the decline in popularity of the sovereignty movement are far from exhaustive. Many others could be listed, such as the lack of a charismatic sovereignist leader, or Canada’s good economic performance despite the Western hemisphere’s financial crisis.
But it appears that if the Bloc and the PQ want to win back the hearts of Quebecers, they must prove the relevancy, even the urgency, of sovereignty in a context of globalization and rapid demographic change in Quebec. They will also need to show that sovereignty will occur harmoniously on the social level and will not cause too much economic disruption. They will need to either circumvent or adapt to the requirements of Plan B and convince a majority of Quebecers that the disadvantages to Quebec of the Canadian federal system outweigh its benefits.
To do all that in the current atmosphere of cynicism, disillusionment and resignation in Quebec is not utterly impossible; but it is a daunting task.
Benoît Pelletieris a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa and a former Liberal MNA and cabinet minister in the Charest government.

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