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Separatism is dead, call the undertaker

 
 
Separatism is dead, call the undertaker
 

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois and candidate Pierre-Karl Peladeau make a campaign stop at train station in Laval, Que., on Friday.

Photograph by: Ryan Remiorz, The Canadian Press , The Leader-Post, Postmedia News

Quebec's election campaign - and what a volatile, nasty, mud-splattered affair it has been - is all but over. But the sense of impending national doom that animated the first days has passed. That's because the threat of Quebec separatism itself, the great existential conundrum that has gripped this country these past 40 years, has once again receded. It happened rather suddenly, midway through the campaign, as polls showed the Parti Quebecois cratering in public support as the likelihood of yet another sovereignty referendum - the third since 1980 - hit home.

So this will be the enduring message of the past four weeks, after the signs are put away and the resignations tendered: C'est fini, cette affaire. And this time, because of the blessings of demographics, age and time, it's not likely coming back. Some will try - led by Pierre Karl Peladeau, perhaps - to reanimate the un-dearly departed. They will fail. This was their shot; the unprecedented ferocity of the campaign just ending indicates all sides understood this. What remains is for the funeral arrangements to be made, the embalming completed, and the mourning to be done by those who will mourn. The rest of us? We can raise a glass, and move on.

HEROUXVILLE, Que. In spirit this village of 1,300, nestled in the Laurentians could not be farther from the metropolis. It is a land out of a storybook about the way Quebec used to be.

No one, on the day I visited, wanted to chat politics with a journalist from the ROC. The mayor, Bernard Thompson, did not respond to requests for an interview.

It was here, in 2007, that Pauline Marois' so-called charter of Quebec values had its genesis. Herouxville's town council proposed and passed a code, framed as an open letter to potential newcomers. It ran to five pages, single-spaced, and amounted to a single long bellow of defiance towards pluralism, in particular the notion of "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities. Among other things, it banned the stoning of women. It told the world, in essence, that Montreal might accommodate whom it liked; but in tiny Herouxville, the old Quebec - culturally Catholic, universally French-speaking, uniformly white - still reigned.

The village became famous overnight. The theme of identity was seized upon by Quebec's ADQ party, then led by Mario Dumont, and controversy fanned in the pages of Quebecor's Journal de Montreal. Jean Charest, then the Liberal premier, moved to ease the pressure, striking the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation. In March of that year the ADQ unseated the Parti Quebecois as the official opposition, with identity as its wedge.

That was the moment, La Presse columnist Vincent Marissal noted in an intriguing piece last week, when the PQ had its eureka moment: It would make the issue of identity its own, and use it as a lever for the furtherance of independence. The values charter, in essence Herouxville's code writ large and dressed up with graphics, would unite "pure laine" Quebecers across the political spectrum. The ROC's inevitable reaction against that, driven by Charter of Rights challenges, would galvanize francophones, who comprise 80 per cent of Quebec's roughly eight million people, in a final glorious push for independence.

As pure strategy, it was clever; meld the philosophical, feminist idealism of the metropolis with the "maîtres chez nous" parochialism of the countryside, in the process forging a never-beforeachieved coalition between left and right, feminist and reactionary, urban and rural. But the PQ failed to bank on this one fact: "Le pays" is not, despite what the Parliament of Canada said in 2006, a nation.

Quebec is actually a federation of nations, in spirit at least - a collective, comprising new immigrants and allophones, rural francophones, the urban francophone bourgeoisie, three main aboriginal nations, and anglophones, both rural and urban. Montreal is a nation unto itself. Each group is distinct; each has its own particular identity. But a clear majority share an appreciation for the security provided to all by the larger Canadian federation. This includes a majority of Quebec francophones, it turns out, and that is something the PQ did not foresee. It was a historic miscalculation.

SAINT-JEROME, Que. - Anyone searching for an exemplar of Quebec's urban francophone bourgeoisie would be hard-pressed to find a more ideal one, on paper, than Pierre Karl Peladeau, the charismatic and brash son of Quebecor founder and lifelong sovereignist Pierre Peladeau. Intelligent, handsome and rich, PKP (as he's known in Quebec) has political talent to burn. It's interesting to speculate, now, about what he might have achieved in federal politics had he, in fact, been a federalist - say, a future leadership prospect of the Conservative Party of Canada, backed by both his Sun group, and the 40 per cent of Quebec's media his company controls, including the TVA network.

But that was not his destiny. These days, at least until Monday' vote, PKP is chief executive of a dingy, small campaign headquarters on St. Georges Street in old Saint-Jerome. The suite was staffed on the evening I visited - five days before the vote - by a handful of downcast-looking volunteers, two of them desultorily working the phones. The candidate himself was out of town, at an event in Laval. Mid-afternoon the following day the office remained nearly deserted, staffed by a handful of elderly partisans. I asked whether I could take a photo and was told, politely but firmly, no. "You'll just print a picture of an empty office," said one worker. Only one of the group would speak to me on Peladeau's behalf. "He wants to give back," said Louise Richer, an earnest 60-something. "He wants to take care of Saint-Jerome."

PKP's Liberal opponent, Armand Dubois, believes otherwise. "He's never here," Dubois told me. The previous day, Dubois said, area candidates met with students at a local school, except for PKP, who had more important business to attend to. In the taverns on the edge of town, the talk is that the famous magnate may win, or he may not; it's a toss-up between what economic benefits he might bring, and resentment of his come-from-away status. "Everybody is very sick of this," one bartender told me with a shrug. "It's tiring." Peladeau himself declined to be interviewed for this article. Either way, it's a far cry from running a corporation with thousands of employees. Further, if recent polls bear out, should Peladeau win his seat, he will toil in opposition. He has promised to stay and work for the people come what may, Richer insists. But no one who knows the man - Peladeau is famously impulsive and monumentally impatient - will take that as given. The irony is that PKP himself was the lightning rod that helped precipitate this state of affairs. It was he who put separation decisively back on the table, sending the Marois campaign into its downward spiral, when he pumped his fist in the air the day he joined the race, March 9, and vowed to make Quebec a country. It has been brutal karmic justice, which has turned out, oddly and utterly unexpectedly, greatly to Canada's benefit.

WAKEFIELD, Que. - Another world away, but again just a few hours' drive down the highway from Montreal, as most populated areas of Quebec are, residents in this village, nestled on a bank of the Gatineau River about 30 minutes' drive north of Ottawa, have been watching events with worry, but - interestingly - not panic. Though Wakefield forms part of a larger municipality, La Peche, its roots as an English-speaking enclave run deep. Most people here are anglophone and bilingual, and many work in Ottawa. In 1995, according to Melanie Scott, editor of the local English-language paper, The Low Down, some homeowners saw their property values drop by half.

This time, she says, as we chat in her living room overlooking the Gatineau hills, there's been more of a waitand-see approach. She's noticed no precipitous decline in the number of real estate listings or ads; the market is a bit slow, but possibly for reasons not due to politics. The Marois values charter, she tells me, has been more than anything an enormous waste of time. "I think it's going to drag on for some time," she says. "But what the province needs is investment in infrastructure, health care and education."

Health care, Scott says, is the most pressing issue facing Quebec, by far. She herself, suffering from a broken shoulder, recently had to wait 36 hours to see a doctor at Wakefield's small hospital. "I remember when everybody had a GP," says Scott, who grew up in Montreal. "I've seen the deterioration over the last 30 years."

And that, in the final analysis, is the bottom-line; the reason why Quebecers in all their rainbow of origins appear poised to deliver a decisive, and quite possibly final, thumbs-down on the independence project. It has been the elephant in the room here for weeks, emerging in televised debates and interviews, in newspaper columns and conversations on the street: there is no identity crisis in Quebec, any more than there was a fundamentalist Islamic influx facing Herouxville in 2007. Only 10 per cent of Quebec's population is anglophone, and 10 per cent allophone. According to Quebec's own bureau of statistics, 345,358 immigrants settled in the province between 2002 and 2011 - an average of just over 38,000 a year. Most of these - 68 per cent - could speak French upon arrival. Only five per cent were unilingual English speakers.

Moreover, try though the PQ has to find evidence of a radical Islamist incursion, face-covered fundamentalist Muslim female police officers, teachers or daycare attendants, extremists demanding exclusive access to public pools, it has been unable to do so; it's fiction. Set against that is the dayto-day reality of crumbling infrastructure, potholed roads and inadequate health care. When asked to choose, faced with the fractious resurrection of a 40-year-old dream of independence, and the alternative - getting on with life - Quebecers resoundingly have chosen the latter. It will be years - if ever - before another politician tests their common sense again. So in a sense, this campaign was the third referendum. And the people have spoken.

Five things to know about the Quebec election

SEPARATISM

Even before the campaigning started, the Parti Québécois faced a basic dilemma: How to persuade enough of the majority of Quebecers opposed to separation to embrace the central plank of the party's platform. Instead of downplaying the issue, Pauline Marois mused publicly about post-secession scenarios in which Quebec and Canada would do without borders, share the dollar, and be best buddies. It brought mockery and outrage from the rest of Canada. Eventually, the PQ moved away from the topic that dominated the first weeks of the campaign, with Marois going so far as to say Quebecers might never be ready for another referendum.

CULTURAL SYMBOLS

A proposed secularism charter re-emerged with a thud in late March when Janette Bertrand, the head of a procharter group known as the Janettes, told a bizarre identity-politics story suggesting rich Muslim men were about to take over the swimming pool in her apartment building. Marois did not distance herself from Bertrand, but accused Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard of not having a plan to deal with such issues. Couillard accused Marois of practising divisive politics. Marois then confirmed a PQ government would use the notwithstanding clause to over-ride Canada's constitution and push through the charter if the Supreme Court were to declare it illegal.

LANGUAGE RIGHTS

Quebec's controversial language laws got a good airing in the home stretch when Marois reiterated her belief that the rise in the use of English, especially in Montreal and among recent immigrants, threatens the future of French in the province. Several high-profile "busts" of English sign usage in Montreal raised the temperature of the debate, but Couillard stuck to his promise of intensive English courses for Grade 6 students, saying bilingualism is a "richness" that will later help students get jobs.

ECONOMY

As the province struggles under the weight of a deficit exceeding $1 billion and a 7.8-per-cent unemployment rate, nearly a point above the national average, voters have told pollsters that jobs and the economy are among the most important election issues. The Liberals promise to create 250,000 jobs, the PQ is playing up its anticorruption strategy designed to clean up after years of Liberal neglect, and the Coalition Avenir Quebec says it will cut school and health taxes and put $1,000 back in the pockets of families.

CORRUPTION

For most of the campaign, the Liberals were on the ropes for links to shady contract dealings when the party was in power for the decade until the 2012 election. Couillard had to defend himself against past ties to a former hospital administrator facing fraud charges connected to a scandal-plagued contract, and for placing $600,000 in an offshore tax haven. But the tables turned in the final 10 days when media reports raised issues of favourable tax arrangements used by the PQ's star candidate, media mogul Pierre-Karl Peladeau. Marois also faced questions over a report her husband, Claude Blanchet, collected illegal political donations in exchange for access to the PQ leader.

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