The Parti Québécois’ interest in language is well-known. Not only did its first government produce the Charte de la langue francaise in 1977, it spent many years in the decade leading up to the 1980 referendum debating points of grammar: whether René Lévesque’s goal of sovereignty- association should be considered to be sovereignty, comma, association, or sovereignty-hyphen-association.

Over the last year and a half, Bernard Landry has been tangled in a similar debate, in which the debate over Quebec sovereignty has been distilled into semantics. During the 2003 election, he repeated the mantra that, if he were elected, he would hold a referendum as soon as he had the moral certainty that he would win. Then, in October 2004, he endorsed a party position that would bind the next PQ government to hold a referendum in the first part of its mandate. A few days later, he reversed himself to say that a referendum would be held ”œas soon as possible.”

More than any other party in Canada, the Parti Québécois lives and dies on the basis of finely drawn, almost theological distinctions that reveal rivalries and enmities that go back decades.

Now, in the fall of 2004, almost exactly 20 years after one-third of Lévesque’s cabinet quit because the party’s founder made it clear that he agreed with his putative suc- cessor, Pierre Marc Johnson, that the subsequent election should not be fought on sovereignty, the party is again wrestling with its fundamental, existential question: when and how Quebec independence should be achieved.

There are a number of factors at work. Part of it is the tension that has existed inside the party since its creation by Lévesque in 1968; part of it is the inevitable process of inter- nal debate that springs up whenever the party is in opposi- tion, unbound from the glue of governance and the anticipation of a referendum; and part of it is a function of an undeclared but open leadership race.

In November 1967, René Lévesque formed the Mouvement Souveraineté-Association (MSA) with the group that had followed him out of the Quebec Liberal Party a few weeks before. In April 1968 ”” on the day that Pierre Trudeau was being sworn in as prime minister ”” the fault lines in the movement became clear, as Lévesque fought to preserve English-language minority rights and English- language education. His great fear was that the movement and the party he was founding would be seen as extremist and anti-English; he intense- ly disliked Pierre Bourgault, the leader of the Rassemblement de l’indépen- dance (RIN), and saw his radicalism as potentially damaging to the party he was trying to create.

So in October 1968, Lévesque formed the Parti Québécois, not by merging his movement with the RIN, that had been fighting for Quebec independence since 1960, but with the Ralliement National, the right- wing fragment led by former Créditiste MP Gilles Grégoire. Ten days later, to Lévesque’s dismay, Bougault made it clear that the the RIN could not be left out of the inde- pendence movement. At a special con- vention, there was a vote to dissolve the party, and Bourgault urged the members to join the PQ, concluding his speech with the words ”œFor the last time in my life I say ”˜Vive le RIN’ ”” and for the first time in my life I say ”˜Vive le Parti Québécois.’”

That reinforced a tension in the new party between moderates and hard- liners, between pragmatists and ideal- ists, between those who believed in rupture and those who believed in accommodation, between those whose primary loyalty was to Lévesque and all his ambiguities and those whose loyal- ties were to Quebec independence. By 1972, it was estimated that 72 percent of the members of the RIN had joined the Parti Québécois. And each succeeding PQ convention featured an epic struggle between Lévesque and those who wanted the party to move harder and faster and more rigourously toward the cre- ation of an independent social demo- cratic French-speaking state.

Each defeat ”” first in 1970 when the PQ won 23 percent of the votes and seven seats, and then in 1973 when the PQ increased its popu- lar vote to 30 percent and lost a seat ”” increased the tension between Lévesque and a segment of the party. In the summer of 1976, members of the small caucus were complaining publicly about Lévesque’s leadership.

But on November 15, 1976, the Parti Québécois was swept to power. Dissatisfaction with Lévesque’s leader- ship vanished in a wave of euphoria, and the government became engaged in introducing and implementing the series of measures that the party had been wrestling with in its program: end- ing corporate and union contributions to political parties, a tougher language law, agricultural zoning, automobile insurance, anti-strike-breaking legisla- tion, the nationalization of asbestos, and other legislation. The unhappiness with Lévesque’s cautious, moderate approach to independence ”” epito- mized by his formula of sovereignty- association ”” only burst out again in December 1981 when, still digesting the referendum defeat in 1980 and enraged by the agreement to patriate and amend the constitution over Quebec’s objections, PQ delegates voted to erase all references to economic asso- ciation with the rest of Canada.

Lévesque fought back and appealed over the heads of the delegates to the members of the party at large to restore the concept of sovereignty association in a vote that was memorably dubbed the ”œRenérendum”: an exercise in plebiscite democracy reminiscent of Gamel Nasser. He won, but his leader- ship was wounded; his last three years in power were awkward and difficult. In the fall of 1984, when Lévesque indicated that he favoured those, led by Pierre Marc Johnson, who wanted to make clear that the following election would not be fought on sov- ereignty, one-third of his cabinet quit.

Johnson succeeded Lévesque in 1985, but the battle for the soul and strat- egy of the party soon resumed. Johnson thought that he could lead the party because the dissidents had left the party; it soon become clear that they would undermine his leadership from the outside. The surge of nationalism that erupted with Lévesque’s death in the fall of 1987 was so powerful that Johnson resigned and Jacques Parizeau, who had resigned from Lévesque’s cabinet in protest, became leader.

No one ever had any doubt about the passion, clarity, purity, depth and impatience of Parizeau’s commitment to Quebec independence, and his skepticism about the validity of Lévesque’s formula of sovereignty- association. And that passion united the party. Parizeau returned to politics, revived the party, and won the 1994 election, vowing an early referendum. The loss by a hair ”” more to the point, by 50,000 votes and one percent of the vote ”” led Parizeau to quit, to be suc- ceeded first by Lucien Bouchard and then by Bernard Landry. But it also froze in place the view in the PQ that Quebec had independence almost within its grasp.

That belief mobilized both the energy and the impatience of PQ militants, who grew increasingly angry at the prudent caution expressed by their leaders ”” first by Bouchard, who said that he would call a referendum when there were ”œwinning condi- tions,” and then Landry, who said that he would do so when he had the ”œmoral certainty” of victory.

Jean Chrétien’s victory in Quebec in the 2000 election, despite the attempts by Quebec nationalists to mobilize public opinion against the federal Clarity Act, convinced Bouchard that a referendum victory was unlikely, leading him to step down as premier. Landry, who had built his career in the party by bridg- ing the hard line and moderate fac- tions in the party, combined a powerful nationalist rhetoric with a shrewd political caution.

That belief in the short-term inevitability of a referendum victory dissolved with the defeat of the Parti Québécois on April 14, 2003, at the hands of Jean Charest when the party had the lowest score in the popular vote since 1973 ”” only 33 percent of the popular vote.

That fall, at the Conseil national on October 18, 2003, political scientist Jean-Herman Guay gave a brutal analysis. The PQ had run out of ener- gy. It had succeeded in transforming Quebec, eliminating the gap between francophones and anglophones and reducing the gap between rich and poor. ”œThe grapes of wrath have disap- peared,” he told the delegates. ”œLinguistic insecurity can no longer be found in the workplace or in business and the feeling of inferiority has disap- peared into the history books.”

Sovereignty had lost its magnetic force and commitment to the cause was fading, he argued. ”œIf (the PQ) continues to spend its energy on fix- ing a new rendezvous with history, it will exhaust itself in its dream and marginalize itself,” arguing that the party should redefine itself as a nationalist rather than an indépendentiste party.

Landry was not amused, and told Guay publicly that if he had come to help them achieve this dream of true liberty as soon as possible, he thanked him for it. ”œBut if you are ask- ing us to abandon this dream, no thank you.”
Guay had played the same role as an analyst and guest speaker that Pierre Marc Johnson had played in 1984-85: expressing the voice of moderate prag- matism. But the party would have none of it. Opposition does not lend itself to the limitations of moderation.

In January 2004, the party found an answering voice. Robert Laplante argued in an article in L’Action nationale that the party should pro- ceed toward independence without holding a referendum first, and only hold a referendum to confirm the fait accompli. In August, Jacques Parizeau through his weight and considerable eloquence behind this position in an article in La Presse.

While Parizeau’s open letter appeared to win little support at large, calling for a return to the posi- tion that had been defeated by the party 30 years before when it endorsed a referendum as a critical step in the process of achieving independence, it set off a debate over commitment to a referendum agenda inside the PQ.

However, there was a dissonant note. Three young PQ MNAs, Alexandre Bourdeau, Stéphan Tremblay and Jonathan Balois, toured Quebec last winter and spring meeting young people, and found that outside the party, sover- eignty is viewed as outdated and irrele- vant, and the debate on independence, as reported in Le Devoir on September 23, as ”œquite beside the point and trivial.”

At the party’s seasonal Conseil national meeting, the debate that has been the theme of so many previous party meetings, resumed. Jean- Francois Lisée, who had been a strate- gic adviser to both Parizeau and Bouchard, warned against tying the hands of the next government, argu- ing that support for sovereignty drops dramatically if there is no ref- erence to partnership in the referen- dum question.

If the party proposes a program for a country, that will create a coalition among our adversaries and give them resonance,” he said. ”œAnd that will be a pass- port for a second mandate for the Charest government.” Laplante, consistent with his article in January, argued that a PQ government should ”œtake acts of rupture” with Canada in order to mobilize the population ”” such as adopting a Quebec constitution or creating a Quebec citizenship. ”œThe next PQ government should be elected with a mandate to break with Canada,” he said.

Landry, as he had done so often in the past, tried to split the difference. He rejected a policy of rupture ”” but endorsed the idea of using public funds to promote sovereignty and committed himself to holding a refer- endum in the first half of the mandate, should the PQ win the next election.

Michel C. Auger, in his column in Le Journal de Montréal, was scathing, pointing out that the PQ had just adopted the policy that had led the Liberals to the sponsorship scandal: a pol- icy of trying to buy people with their own money.

”œIn this party which is in the middle of a leader- ship campaign but refuses to admit it, the priority from now on is to determine the fine points of accession to sovereignty,” he conclud- ed. ”œSo much the worse for Quebec voters, who might have other con- cerns; the PQ rocket has taken off without them, and is already under- way for another planet.”

A few days later, Landry reversed himself.

Indeed, a few weeks later, in its annual Portraits of Canada sur- vey, the Centre for Research and Information on Canada found that Lisée was correct. Support for Quebec sovereignty has increased to 49 percent.

A survey conducted by CROP in Quebec found that support for the question asked in the 1995 referen- dum, which dropped to 40 percent in 2001, has now climbed back to close to the 1995 result of 49.4 percent Yes and 50.6 percent No. CROP surveyed 1,000 people between September 16 and October 3, generating results with a margin of error of plus or minus 1.7 percent, 19 times out of 20.

The survey asked the following question: ”œIf a referendum were held today on the same question as that asked in 1995, that is, sovereignty with an offer of partnership with the rest of Canada, would you vote Yes or would you vote No?”

Maurice Pinard, professor emeri- tus at McGill University and an associ- ate with the Centre for Research and Information on Canada, which spon- sored the survey, pointed out what Lisée had told the PQ: the harder the question, the more support for sover- eignty dropped.

Thus, 44 percent said they favoured Quebec becoming an inde- pendent country, and 33 percent said they would vote for Quebec becoming ”œcompletely independent.” But only 31 percent said they would vote no if asked if they wanted Quebec to remain a province of Canada.

Pinard had a number of explanations for the rise in sup- port for the 1995 question on sovereignty with an offer of partnership with the rest of Canada.

First, he pointed out, sup- port for sovereignty has risen in the past seven or eight years after a referendum.

”œSecondly, support for sov- ereignty is higher when the (Quebec) Liberals are in power than when the Parti Québécois is in power,” he said. ”œPeople say ”˜Yes, I’m for that ”” but it’s not going to happen tomorrow. People are less nervous.’”

Thirdly, he said, the PQ is much more militant when it is in opposition.

”œThey quarrel among themselves ”” but when they are quarrelling, they are talking about sovereignty,” he said.

Pinard said that support for sover- eignty dropped when the PQ was in power and people were dissatisfied with it as a government ”” and that support has increased because there is great dissatisfaction with Jean Charest’s Liberal government.

In that context, what lies ahead?

Landry, the aging warrior who has fought for Quebec independence since he organized the rally against CNR president Donald Gordon in December 1962, will turn 70 in 2007, when the next Quebec election is expected. It is hard to see how he can persuade PQ delegates at their convention next June that he can persuade young québécois that independence is not ”œquite beside the point and trivial.” He lost an election that he had convinced himself and his party he could win ”” and second chances are rare in Quebec politics, as Jean Lesage, Pierre Marc Johnson and Daniel Johnson could tell him. (Opposition leaders can lose an election and stay on; parties are unfor- giving of leaders who lose power.)

Pauline Marois astonished many by openly declaring her ambitions to become leader, but significantly with- out the open support of a single mem- ber of the PQ’s caucus. But her style of smooth reassurance, while effective for a finance minister, does not seem to mobilize support for a leadership bid.

Francois Legault, a former airline entrepreneur before he entered politics, has been organizing for the leadership. His businessman’s style disguises an old- fashioned xenophobic streak that has its origin in the fact that he grew up in the West Island of Montreal, a radicalizing experience for him. He has not proven to be politically adroit; his response to Parizeau’s letter suggesting that a refer- endum would only be required to ratify independence was a baffling ”œI’m not an expert”; hardly a rallying cry for a party seeking Quebec sovereignty.

While Landry may not get the vote of confidence ”” some talk about 80 percent ”” from the party that will allow him to stay on, it is clear that he will do everything he can to prevent Marois from taking over the party.

This has led many to speculate about Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, whose star rose dra- matically after his effective performance during the 2004 federal election.

This may come to pass, but no one should assume that Duceppe will do anything to undermine Landry’s leader- ship. The two men are friends; Duceppe was part of the small group invited to Landry’s summer wedding. And Duceppe is nothing if not a good soldier; his formative experience was one of working for several years in a hospital laundry because the Marxist group he belonged to had decid- ed that was where he could best serve the cause. And for now, he has decided that he is best serv- ing the cause of sovereignty by leading the Bloc in Ottawa.

But if Landry is rebuffed by the convention next June, or decides that his dream of coming back to power to lead the Yes forces in a successful referendum cannot be achieved, Duceppe is likely to be his favoured candidate to succeed him.

If that occurs, the federal government and the rest of Canada should real- ize that they are dealing with a sovereignist leader who has learned the strengths and weaknesses of the federal politicians he will be facing. Duceppe is tough and self-disciplined, and runs a tight, disciplined organization. He is a single-minded, intelligent and a strategic thinker who learns from his mistakes. No one should assume that he would preside over the death of the Parti Québécois, or the independence movement.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License