The Parti Québécois lost Quebec’s election on April 7 – and it deserved to. A year and a half into its term, having passed a law setting a four-year fixed-term electoral cycle (see box), the minority PQ government dissolved the National Assembly. Facing an untested new Liberal leader and buoyed by polls in its favour, the party convinced itself that a majority was in sight.
As a minority government it proved competent, in part because it could not get the more extreme parts of its program, on further English-language restrictions and on the undiluted Charter of Values, through the National Assembly. In calling the election, however, the PQ mistakenly interpreted its popularity as a moderate minority government as an endorsement for moving forward on these policies and, just possibly, for putting a referendum on sovereignty back on the agenda. Trying to win a mandate as a majority government that would act on these matters simply played into the hands of the Liberals, whose new leader, Philippe Couillard, proved able to take advantage of the opportunity handed to him.
The moment that it all came crashing down was when the PQ’s high-profile recruit, union-busting media magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau, made explicit with raised fist why he was at Pauline Marois’s side. And it was hardly to support the moderately left-wing policies of her government: he was running to make Quebec an independent country.
The plummeting polls soon made clear what should have been apparent. While many Quebecers were sympathetic to the principles underlying the Charter and to the goal of sovereignty in the abstract, far fewer were ready to move toward implementation, given the divisions and – as Couillard and Coalition Action Québec leader François Legault kept reminding them – distraction from the real economic challenges facing Quebec that this would entail.
How could Marois and her advisers have been caught unawares? How could such apparently sophisticated people have been so wrong? Part of the answer is age. At the back of her mind, she could not but feel that a majority government at this time might be the last chance for her generation, the one that built the PQ, to realize its projet de société.
The results proved otherwise. To their credit, some of Marois’s peers were willing to face up to the implications of what happened on April 7. For example, in its report the next day, Le Devoir quoted Louise Beaudoin, a grande dame of the independence movement (see box) and Gérard Bouchard, one of its gurus, to the effect that the election was a “turning point” and that the movement had reached a “dead end.”
The most hard-headed analysis from within the cabinet came from 55-year-old Jean-François Lisée, one of the architects of the electoral strategy and a leading candidate to succeed Marois (and a contributor to Inroads on several occasions). In his much-read blog, and in an interview with La Presse, he made no attempt to sugar-coat the numbers. Only one in four voted for the PQ, compared to one in three in 2012 when the PQ squeaked in as a minority. The polls showed that the Liberals won by rejecting the referendum and prioritizing the economy, jobs and health care.
To have a chance of winning the next election in four years, he concluded, the PQ would have to promise that there would be no referendum – “the elephant in the room” – during its term in office. Otherwise it could expect to languish in the opposition for 20 years. Should he seek the leadership, we can expect to see Lisée stake out this moderate ground, combined with a more explicit left-of-centre stance. He would face opposition from the party’s “pur et dur” wing (whose standard-bearer could well be Péladeau). He could also face Bernard Drainville, who was responsible for the Charter as minister. Lisée took his distance from Drainville in his interview, expressing his support for a grandfather clause in the Charter so that no one would lose their job.
Other assessments were even more pessimistic, and these often stressed the generational nature of the defeat (see box). This was no repeat of early fall 2012 when the party was able to mobilize some youth support to oppose the Liberals’ tuition increase. Both of the leaders of the 2012 student movement who ran as PQ candidates in 2014, Léo Bureau-Blouin and Martine Desjardins, were defeated. A Léger poll in Le Journal de Montreal in late March showed PQ support among those over 55 to be 13 percentage points higher than among 18- to 35-year-olds. What kind of movement for change depends on a generation departing from the scene?
For good or bad, the generations that will determine Quebec’s future do not include Marois (or Jacques Parizeau, Bernard Landry or Gilles Duceppe, none of whom were cited in the media post-mortems). Will the new generations’ aspirations revolve around a vision of Quebec that includes political independence? It seems unlikely. It is not that they identify with Canada and its political boundaries, but rather that national borders per se have little meaning in the cyberworld. In this world it is possible, indeed natural, to mobilize rapidly around a single issue, but far less so to engage in the steady organizational effort required to build a successful political movement.