A while back I shared my opinion on Québec sovereignty, expressing the view that independence is inevitable. Well, my opinion has changed. I wrote that particular entry back in April of 2009, over two years before moving to Québec City in October of 2011. If you want to go back and check it out, here`s the link:
I no longer think sovereignty is assured, but at the same time I do think under the right conditions, that the separatists might still be able to garner fifty per cent plus one in a vote.
When I bring up the question of Québec independence with friends, colleagues and acquaintances here the reaction is typically pretty much the same. They`re fed up with the debate, the arguments, and all the acrimony that goes with it. Sovereignty is an issue that has split up families and ended friendships.
Still, it simmers just below the surface as evidenced by the popularity of the Parti Québecois and the emergence of other, even more strident sovereigntist parties.
By my reckoning (carefully unresearched and completely devoid of any scientific method) about 20-25% of Quebecois are die hard separatists. No matter the timing or wording of the question, close to a quarter of the population would vote for independence. Another 25-30% are strident federalists who will never vote to take Québec out of confederation.
That leaves somewhere around 50% as either soft federalists or soft separatists who could go either way depending on the question and the timing. Those who think the issue is dead should hearken back to the aftermath of the first referendum back in 1980. After the No side romped to a 60% victory many thought the issue was settled, and then were stunned in 1995 when the Yes side came within a whisker of winning.
How might separatists win over enough soft support to win? A lot would have to go right, but here`s the path as I see it.
Firstly the Parti Québecois would have to win a majority mandate, something that polling indicates is a very real possibility come the fourth of September. Pauline Marois' party is currently sitting in the low 30% range in support, but with the upstart CAQ party siphoning off Liberal votes, we may be looking at a scenario similar to what happened in Ontario when Bob Rae`s NDP won a majority by splitting up the middle.
With Mme Marois installed as Québec's first minister the stage would be set for her promised demands of more autonomy from Ottawa: taking over EI and immigration policy for starters. Would Ottawa give control of a program like EI to Québec? I highly doubt it. Employment Insurance is a program that takes in billions more in premiums than it pays out in benefits, with the difference going into general revenues.
I doubt any federal government in Ottawa would be eager to give up on this cash cow, be it Conservative, NDP or Liberal, especially with proposed rule changes that will shrink benefits even further. Likewise with immigration policy. While immigration doesn't generate revenue the way EI premiums do, I still doubt Ottawa would be anxious to cede control.
And that would give the PQ the script they're looking for.
M. Charest has been in power for nine years and there`s a whole generation who would be hearing the separatist manifesto for the first time, in newspapers, on the radio and television news.
'Québec shouldn't have to go on its knees begging to Ottawa for the right to make decisions about notre pays!!! We deserve our own place in the world, as an equal member of the global community. Why are we paying taxes to Ottawa and having to live with the choices they make for us? Enough with the duplication, and the cost.'
You don't have to agree with those statements, but if they're repeated often enough they do start to take root with a lot of people. Just think back to some other propaganda we've heard federally like: Not worth the risk and he's not in it for you. And I doubt there would be another huge unity rally in Montreal to save the day again. English Canada is fed up, especially Conservatives after Québec bucked the blue wave sweeping the country.
Which brings me to the other winning condition for separatists, a Prime Minister in Ottawa who is incredibly unpopular in Québec, as is certainly the case now with Stephen Harper. His name comes up as often as that of Charest or Marois in this election, and it isn't flattery.
Its still a long shot, and a lot would have to fall the way separatists would like, but I don't see it as impossible.