Separatism Weakening in Quebec

Pierre Falardeau wants his fellow Quebecers to know that they are lazy, stupid and far too self-satisfied for their own good.

For Falardeau, Canada is an evil and stifling place, and the filmmaker and stalwart separatist has made a career of cataloguing the country's "neo-colonialist" treatment of French QUEBEC - often with generous subsidies from Telefilm Canada. These days, though, the rusty-throated polemicist has another, somewhat surprising, target: the ever-increasing number of Quebecers who have effectively turned their back on sovereignty.

"Quebecers have become imbeciles," Falardeau barks over the phone. "This is a population that lives in the suburbs and shops at Wal-Mart. It's a collective problem. Where are the intellectuals? Where are the artists? Where are the thinkers, the ones who are meant to make us reflect?" It isn't the first time the 60-year-old Montreal native has decried his brethren for their lack of separatist sang-froid - his most popular movie, Elvis Gratton, is a 1981 satire about an ultra-federalist Québécois slob who drapes himself in the Maple Leaf - but his diatribe is more remarkable now because it has never rung so true, at least as far as sovereignty is concerned.

Forty years after French President Charles de Gaulle declared "Vive le Québec libre" from the balcony of Montreal's City Hall, and after the formation of two separatist parties, two referendums, and several rounds of constitutional talks, the sovereignty movement has rarely seemed weaker. Quebecers' indifference to the anniversary of de Gaulle's speech - arguably the watershed moment in nationalist history - has the pur et dur ranks in a funk. "It was not as big of an event as it should have been, and it shows the morose state of the separatist movement," Jean Dorion, president of la Société Saint-Jean Baptiste, told a newspaper recently. And Canada doesn't have its politicians to thank for this: that honour goes to the vast majority of Quebecers themselves.

Mario Dumont's ACTION DÉMOCRATIQUE DU QUÉBEC stormed into official opposition largely by attracting the prototypical suburbanite who hasn't much use for or interest in Quebec's favourite obsession - the very type of voter Falardeau decries. And after suffering its worst electoral defeat in 34 years, the PARTI QUÉBÉCOIS has "deferred to the intelligence of Quebecers" and placed the party's referendum platform on hold indefinitely.

A recent poll published in La Presse showed some 86 per cent of Quebecers think the sovereignist option "has stalled or regressed" since the 1995 referendum. The same poll also revealed a sentiment that may surprise those who think the province always has one foot outside Confederation: 85 per cent of French Quebecers said they were proud to be Canadian, the highest it's been in 20 years.

According to a similar Léger et Léger poll, the majority of avowed sovereignists no longer believe the province will ever separate from the country. Even former Péquiste premier Bernard LANDRY says "being Canadian isn't dishonourable" - high praise from a man who once referred to the Canadian flag as "a piece of red rag."

All this has hard-liners of Falardeau's ilk in a froth. "We aren't lying to ourselves, the independence movement is currently in crisis," says Patrick Bourgeois, publisher of the separatist newspaper Le Québécois. "I don't want to sound condescending, but we have a population that is politically unmotivated and doesn't have a knowledge of its own history."

"Quebecers have become sheep," echoes book publisher Michel Brûlé. "We have a small people's mentality."

It wasn't meant to be like this. To hard-core nationalists, Quebec sovereignty is a grand and noble cause, the final and ultimate righting of all injustices visited upon the French throughout Canadian history. The Parti Québécois has long had a somewhat romantic notion of its typical voter: he is likely unilingual French, working class, and has nothing but contempt for his English neighbours next door and at large.

Flash forward 30 years and the only disdain some sovereignists seem to possess is for Jean Q. Publique. "This is what interests them: bingo, lottery tickets, swimming pools, fast food restaurants and hot dogs," wrote one pur et dur on the Le Québécois website. "Our people will die of stupidity," wrote another.

"We are getting into the age of Elvis Gratton," Michel Brûlé complains, referring to the oafish caricature of the Ugly Quebecer. "When you have two million people watching something like [French reality television show] Loft Story, you have to ask yourself questions." Bourgeois sees Quebecers descending once again into "comfort and indifference," the title of Denys ARCAND's 1982 film excoriating Quebec's rejection of sovereignty in the first referendum: "For many Quebecers, it's about individual accomplishments, like having a good career and a nice family. They say, 'Why should we break our head over collective problems?' The collective is no longer in fashion."

"We are scared, we are frightened," says noted firebrand Yves Michaud, a close friend of Landry's. "French Quebecers vote 'No' because they are scared and because big business is allied with the English minority."

Whether it be fear, demographics or simply frustration with the endless chicane over Quebec's future, this much is true: that prototypical Péquiste voter is certainly a scarce being. Today, the average Quebecer is more likely to be bilingual and long ago moved to the suburbs or the exburbs (Quebec is home to seven of the country's 20 fastest growing municipalities). It's also home to Canada's oldest population, chock full of baby boomers for whom sovereignty remains a dream that, while pleasant enough, pales in the shadow of health concerns, pension cheques and many other of life's realities.

"There are a lot of people who are sovereignist at heart but who say, 'I'm 55 years old, I'm close to retirement, the fight is behind me, and if it's so complicated I prefer to forget about it,' " says Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay, a political scientist, journalist and former aide to Péquiste MNA Jean-Pierre Charbonneau. While that voter may not yet have a Canadian flag flying in the yard, he is no longer taken by the sovereignist furor required for the collective push out of Canada. Quite simply, he has other things on his mind.

Even Quebec's artists, long the movement's bards and boosters, now for the most part shy away from any political label that might hurt their bottom line. "Artists are scared today," laments singer and actor Luck Mervil, one of the few to declare his political affiliation in the last provincial campaign. (A sovereignist, he supported Québec Solidaire.) "They aren't stupid. There are subsidies they can lose. They don't want to offend any of their potential audiences. Look at our biggest selling artists. They don't pronounce themselves, they don't talk about it."

For sovereignists, the outlook is grim even amongst the province's youth, traditionally the hotbed of nationalist sentiment. Young people today, wrote newspaper columnist Stéphane Laporte recently, are more likely to "listen to Arcade Fire and are more interested in saving the planet than their language."

Others still, particularly in the Quebec hinterland, don't see themselves in the PQ's stubborn leftist perch, says Légaré-Tremblay: "The PQ has taken the young people for granted. They haven't done anything to recruit young people. As the leaders got older they assumed the young people would take their place. They haven't." (The PQ isn't helping its own cause: the party's youth website still features a 30-second clip of former leader André Boisclair urging young voters to "get rid of Mr. Charest" - nearly four months after Mr. Charest was re-elected and two months after Boisclair himself quit under pressure from party hard-liners.)

While the young and old stay away in droves, the movement faces yet another threat: its persistent inability to draw support from immigrants, on which the province depends to prop up its sagging birth rate. Not only does Quebec have difficulty retaining immigrants - the province loses more immigrants to other provinces than it attracts from them, notes lawyer and demographer Patrice Vachon - those who remain are more often than not staunch federalists who, according to a number of surveys, would vote overwhelmingly 'No' in a referendum. It seems the 'ethnic vote,' as former premier Jacques Parizeau derisively put it in 1995, continues to plague sovereignists.

"It takes time," concedes Bernard Landry, today a professor at Concordia University. "We chose the route of democracy, and it is slow, but I like this more than violence."

Despite Parizeau's odious comments, and though Landry himself has said any referendum goal higher than 50 per cent plus one "gives veto rights on our national project to our compatriot brothers and sisters in the cultural communities," the resolute sovereignist maintains the movement is making inroads with immigrants. "I'm almost certain that we have the majority of Latino-Americans on our side," Landry says, adding, "anyone attempting to discredit the sovereignist movement on ethnic lines is dealing in urban legends."

Perhaps. But for people like Patrick Bourgeois, for whom outright separation remains the be-all and end-all, new arrivals pose a particular conundrum. On average, first-generation immigrant women have three babies, nearly double that of a Québécoise de souche, and are more likely to move to the Montreal region than anywhere else in the province.

This bodes well for sovereignist parties like the PQ, at least in elections, because their support comes from the regions outside the city. But in the event of another referendum, the lion's share of Montreal's 450,000 immigrants, what Vachon calls "a very important voting block," will likely go "No." Though Jean CHAREST's Liberals won the last election, it received the lowest francophone vote in the party's history. "The Liberal Party of Quebec is nothing but a party for immigrants and Anglos," wrote one nationalist on l'Actualité's website.

This, of course, is if there is another referendum at all. Mario Dumont has said repeatedly that staging Quebec's exit from Canada isn't in the cards. "There is not going to be a referendum" in the event of an ADQ government, said ADQ spokesperson Jean-Nicholas Gagné. "Not in the first mandate and not in the second."

Meanwhile, newly minted Péquiste leader Pauline Marois took the job on the condition that the pursuit of sovereignty, the party's raison d'être and article No. 1 of its charter, be mothballed indefinitely - effectively neutering the party's hard-core sovereignist flank. "Support for the PQ has been eroding since 1994" because of the party's referendum obsession, Marois wrote in her inaugural message to party stalwarts. "In trying to do what we thought best for people, we forgot to listen to what they thought was best for themselves." (Marois declined to be interviewed for this story.)

She had yet to return from a post-coronation vacation when that flank began to fight back, and it remains to be seen whether she will be able to keep it in check. History hasn't been kind to PQ leaders who dare sway from sovereignty's path: every one save for Jacques Parizeau and Bernard Landry was pushed out of office as a result. "A party that fails to promote its reason for existing cannot inspire the confidence of its electors," sniffed Université de Montréal professor Denis Molière recently. "How can public opinion change in favour of sovereignty if no one talks about it, discusses, promotes and explains?"

How indeed? Were it left up to former MNA Yves Michaud, the PQ would indeed forgo another referendum until it had put in place several of what he calls "acts of sovereignty": establish Quebec citizenship and a constitution, send a Quebec delegation to the United Nations and pursue an "extremely aggressive" family-friendly policy to ensure a bumper crop of newborn Québécois.

Michaud also hopes the PQ will make French CEGEP mandatory for all incoming immigrants so that they are more likely to become sovereignist - meaning many recent arrivals to Quebec would be able to vote, buy liquor and join the army but not take college courses in the language of their choice. "Half of the immigrants go to English CEGEP. They might speak French, but how many of them would vote 'Yes'?" he asks.

Given the high percentage of supposedly proud Canadians in Quebec, you'd think the Maple Leaf would be hanging from every lamppost and sewn on every backpack. At the very least, you'd think the federal or the provincial governments could have coughed up at least one official to march among the thousands of attendees at Montreal's Canada Day parade. But no; as unpopular as another referendum might be, Quebec's nationalist discourse rules the day and support for sovereignty remains at a steady 40 to 45 per cent in successive polls. To some it is the ultimate contradiction; to others it makes perfect sense.

"There is an attachment to Canada, but it isn't as strong as the attachment to Quebec," says André Pratte, chief columnist for La Presse, arguably the province's most influential newspaper. He is a perfect example: a federalist considered a patsy and/or the Antichrist by most sovereignists, Pratte nonetheless considers himself to be a Quebecer first. "There is nothing harmful that Quebecers consider themselves Quebecers first and Canadians second. If you asked the same question in Newfoundland people would first consider themselves to be Newfoundlanders. That's normal in a country as diverse as Canada, and the country's challenge is to protect all this so that people can keep their identities and participate in the Canadian project." Support for separatism is stable between 40 and 45 percent, he says, thanks in part to old constitutional wounds like Meech Lake and Charlottetown, as well as a sense that the rest of the country doesn't quite understand Quebec's need to protect its language and culture.

The trouble in Quebec, Pratte suggests, is that for all its apparent benefits, federalism simply isn't sexy. The sovereignty movement appeals directly to Quebecers' collective heartstrings - it can't be printed on a T-shirt or a golf ball, as the country found out during the Gomery commission. Tapping the fury of Quebec nationalists is simple enough, but finding a proud Québécois federalist is like fishing without bait: you know they're there, but damned if you can catch one.

"When Quebec sovereignists speak there are very few people to answer them, because federalists don't speak all that often, and not very loud. It's a shame, because if you look at the history of all the conflicts between Quebec and the feds, you see that most of the problems get solved. Look at worker training, fiscal imbalance, immigration. These were all major problems that sovereignists argued necessitated independence, but they were solved. It means separatists have to change their target all the time."

The targets may change, but the rhetoric stays stubbornly the same. Predicting the death of the sovereignist movement is an exercise in futility; "the movement will weaken under the circumstances but it will never disappear," says Légaré-Tremblay. Unable to vote for André Boisclair, thousands of separatists parked their votes with the ADQ during the last election, and it remains to be seen if they will come back with Marois at the helm.

This much is certain, however: the strength of the sovereignist movement is inversely related to the amount of venom its luminaries are willing to spit at Quebecers themselves - which is a whole lot these days, if Pierre Falardeau's mouth is any indication. "Quebecers are messed up," he says of the people he claims to love. "They've always been messed up and they are still messed up. To read the media we have, it's not surprising that people are such cretins."

It is a breathlessly presumptuous argument: all French Quebecers, Falaradeau and company argue, want separatism; they're just too weak-willed to achieve it. Given the state of sovereignty, though, one wonders if Quebecers are even listening anymore.

See alsoSEPARATISM.

Maclean's August 13, 2007