PQ Support Dwindles as Sovereignty Debates Give Way to Nationalism, Says Professor

PQ Support Dwindles as Sovereignty Debates Give Way to Nationalism, Says Professor
Reporters listen to the Quebec election leaders’ debate in Montreal on Sept. 15, 2022. (The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)
Lee Harding

The Parti Québécois has battled historic lows in its popular support throughout 2022 as many supporters in Quebec shift their single-minded focus on sovereignty to other concerns.

Yannick Dufresne, a political science professor at Laval University, says he believes just over one-third of Quebecers support political independence for the province, yet throughout 2022 the PQ has placed fifth in opinion polls among the five major parties taking part in the Oct. 3 provincial election.

Meanwhile, Premier Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ)—which favours nationalism, advocating for a stronger Quebec within Canada—enjoys a comfortable lead, and Quebec’s other sovereignist party, Québec solidaire (QS), has been placing fourth.

“It’s a complicated story. The main puzzle here is why separatists don’t vote for the Parti Quebecois anymore. It means there are a lot of separatists elsewhere, and they are mostly in the Québec solidaire and on the CAQ side,” Dufresne said in an interview.

“The PQ is a party that fights with each other in the structure. There’s too much influence at the grassroots and it’s not very strategic. So the CAQ is perceived a little bit more right-wing, and more efficient, and can take directions better.”

Key moments in the first Quebec election debate on Sept. 15 showed changing tides in the province’s electoral politics. On the idea of having a referendum on Quebec sovereignty, Legault said he “absolutely” rejects the idea, saying “that’s not what Quebecers want,” while the PQ and QS want one.

Debate moderator Pierre Bruneau asked PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon if it was his party’s last gasp, given that it was bleeding support to CAQ and QS. The leader offered no direct answer but countered by saying CAQ had not succeeded in getting any concessions from Ottawa.

How PQ Lost Support

PQ founder Rene Levesque advocated holding referendums to achieve Quebec sovereignty and secede from Canada. His 1980 attempt only received 40.4 percent support. Leader Jacques Parizeau initiated the 1995 referendum, which saw 49.4 percent support for Quebec sovereignty. Without a catalyst to bring secession into majority support, another referendum was never held.
A decade later, two manifestos were written, which Dufresne says brought other issues to the fore. The first, “Pour un Québec lucide,or “For a Clear-Sighted Quebec,” was signed by Bloc Québécois founder and former PQ premier Lucien Bouchard and 11 other public figures on both sides of the sovereigntist-federalist debate. The authors argued that slow population growth, high public debt, and high taxes were sinking Quebec. The solution was lower government spending, less subsidization of student tuition and daycare, and higher hydro bills.
Thirty-six signatories, including current federal environment minister Steven Guilbeault, countered with the “Manifeste pour un Québec solidaire.” It argued that Quebec was not in as bad a position as the “lucide” claimed and that Quebec’s response to a changing world was to reject the market capitalism and consumption that created its problems. “Québec must now undertake a political and economic shift that is resolutely viable, progressive, and united,” the authors wrote.

In 2006, two political groups merged to form Québec solidaire. In 2008, Amir Khadir, still a member of the National Assembly today, won the first seat for QS.

The 2007 Quebec general election saw the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ) rise from 4 seats to 41 and become official opposition to Jean Charest’s Liberals. The ADQ then fell to 7 seats in the 2008 election. Legault founded CAQ in November 2011, and the ADQ merged with the new party in January 2012. CAQ placed third in the 2012 and 2014 elections, finally winning in 2018.

In May 2022, Legault’s CAQ government passed Bill 96, which strengthened French language requirements even more than PQ governments had in the past. The Liberals successfully introduced an amendment that would require students attending English-language CEGEP publicly funded colleges to take three core courses in French in order to graduate. A backlash ensued from CEGEPs and the anglophone and First Nations communities, but subsequently the Liberals failed in attempts to reverse the amendment.

‘A Balanced Position’

Quebec has no English debate this year because the CAQ and PQ refused to participate. So Conservative Party Leader Éric Duhaime used the French debate as an opportunity to rebuke Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade in English.
“You betrayed English Quebecers, actually, on that bill,” Duhaime said, referring to Anglade’s previous positions in favour of Bill 96.

“The two old parties—the ‘Yes’ and the ’No' team—are below 10 percent. We’re entering a new paradigm and I think anglophones want to be a part of that new political reality.”

Bruneau asked Duhaime if he was a federalist or separatist. He replied, “I identify myself as a nationalist,” and said he didn’t want another referendum.

Dufresne says he agrees with Duhaime that the Quebec political landscape is evolving in new ways.

“Something that is going on in this election is particularly interesting, especially with the Conservative Party of Quebec. … [It’s] very populist-based and built on the resentment during the pandemic, on the nationalistic aspect, very difficult to grasp,” he said.

“National means not that much. … Quebecers when [asked] are you more Quebecer than Canadian, most people would say, ‘Yeah, I’m more Quebecer,’ but it doesn’t mean that they want their [separate] country. So, I think it’s a way of making it a balanced position where nobody can really disagree,” Dufresne said.

Dufresne believes QS has captured the sentiment of younger voters, leaving the PQ to an older generation of single-issue voters.

“Their main voters [of Québec solidaire] are younger. When you talk to the young people, they’re not separatists but they’re not federalists either. They’re not really thinking about it that much,” he said.

“The hard-core separatists are getting older and they’re voting PQ. And some of them might vote CAQ,” he said, noting that some separatists he talked to were saying, “We prefer the PQ to disappear than to see the Liberals coming back, so the CAQ is a good compromise.”

Monarchy Issue

A Leger poll conducted in August showed that 85 percent of Quebecers who favoured sovereignty and 49 percent of those opposed wanted to abolish the monarchy. Dufresne said marking a national holiday for Queen Elizabeth II’s passing seems strange to some Quebecers and could boost the PQ.

“We all know how entrenched it is in the Constitution and impossible to get rid of the monarchy, but for the PQ it will be proper to talk about this after the funeral,” he said, posing the question, “Would there be enough time before the election to get some gain by showing that there was a disconnect?”

Lee Harding is a journalist and think tank researcher based in Saskatchewan, and a contributor to The Epoch Times.
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