“On veut un pays! On veut un pays! On veut un pays!”
The words filled the conference room at the posh Hilton Bonaventure hotel as Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois (PQ), steps down from the podium. She had just given the keynote speech at her party’s general council – five hundred party members and supporters were assembled to hear their leader speak. They loved her. Earlier, when her arrival was announced, four or five people entered the room, playing bongo drums that were suspended from their necks, while music blared from the loudspeakers.
Still, as I listened to the PQ rank and file chanting for an independent Quebec, I wondered, briefly and whimsically, if they had all just listened to a quite different speech than the one I had just taken in.
In the speech I heard, Marois lambasted the provincial Liberal government of Jean Charest for its energy policies, but above all, his tuition hikes, budget deficit, and general economic performance.
Marois also hammered the prime minister on the environment, military spending, and health care. Her solution for all of it seemed to come down to sovereignty. “The most fundamental change for Quebec is to pass from Stephen Harper’s Canada to the country of Quebec,” Marois intoned. “We want to change countries!”
I was confused. Weren’t these the same things Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe had talked about over and over, blithely self-confident, before seeing his party nearly wiped off the electoral map last May, and losing his own seat in parliament to an NDP upstart? What made the PQ think it would work for them? Hadn’t Quebec moved on?
Earlier that evening, I arrived at the hotel to register for Friday evening’s activities. As I walked through a series of hallways adorned with glistening mirrors, chandeliers, paintings, and luxurious rugs, I passed groups of businessmen in sharp, tailored suits. I felt a gnawing sense of being a bit too casually dressed for the venue.
It wasn’t the only way I felt out of place. I was, in a sea of separatist francophones, an anglophone McGill student. Could they tell I was an outsider by the way I walked? By my smell? Uncertain as to whether I was inadvertently giving off any telling anglo signals, I followed the signs to the press room, where I was given a nametag indicating that I was writing for the “Journal Université McGill.” (This, by the way, is like being a small tuna fish trying to sneak past a Great White and getting a nosebleed.)
After the opening plenary ended, I went to a nearby room where the national youth committee’s conference was being held. When I entered the exquisitely decorated conference room, hung with Quebec flags, a middle-aged man approached me and said, “You look lost. Are you looking for something?”
“I’m checking to see if those seats in front are reserved for the media section,” I replied.
He looked puzzled. “The media section? I didn’t even know there was a media section.”
As I moved to the front, I realized that his surprise was justified – I was the only person sitting at the media table during the rest of the conference.
(The PQ youth wing does seem to have a fairly persistent visibility problem. Alexandre Banville, the group’s communications director, forwarded my editor’s first email to him to the youth wing president, with a message attached: “lol !” He accidentally copied my editor on the inside joke. When my editor asked if he was meant to receive the message, Banville replied that he was sorry – he and his colleague “were just talking about how long it had been since we talked to any anglophone media.”)
After a few opening speeches, a handful of youth delegates who had recently been elected to new positions – treasurer, vice-president, and so forth – headed to the front. Each of the eight or so beaming and chicly-dressed poiliticos-in-training gave a short speech expressing their gratitude and their fond expectations for the party’s future.
All of a sudden the crowd burst into a standing ovation. When I turned around to see what had incited this furor, I saw that Pauline Marois had entered the room. She spoke for a few minutes in praise of the recently elected youth members, then left.
The delegates then voted on various resolutions to revise their mandate. Motions to preserve the French language and to “put an end to the federal government’s interference,” were voted in unanimously.
Other, more wonkish, topics incited long debates among delegates, as when the room split on support for free university education. (They finally decided to convene a national youth meeting on the topic of accessibility to education.) At the end of the meeting, I talked for a few minutes with one of the youth delegates. I asked him whether the committee’s support for tuition subsidies – a topic that only minutes ago had made them waxing grandiloquent on students’ inalienable right to a free education – would be extended to out-of-province students attending English-language universities. Pausing for a moment, he replied that he was unsure and would have to look it up.
I then asked him about the relevance of sovereignty in Quebec, and he enthusiastically responded that it still represented the wishes of a large proportion of Quebecers. Pointing to a Léger Marketing-Le Devoir poll from last year, he stressed that 41 per cent of Quebecers support sovereignty. I looked the poll up when I got home: it was conducted between May 9 and 11, exactly one week after the Bloc Québécois, Canada’s only federal sovereigntist party, had lost 43 of its 47 seats in the federal election.
The federal riding of Verchères-Les Patriotes, located on the South Shore of Montreal, is one of the ridings the Bloc lost last May. It has a population of 97,726, and has sent a Bloc MP to Ottawa in every election since 1993, the Bloc’s first. In 2011, NDP newcomer Sana Hassainia beat the Bloc incumbent Luc Malo by a margin of roughly 4,000 votes. When I first heard that the riding had switched to the NDP, I was shocked. Many of the towns that make up the riding are nearly homogeneously francophone.
Varennes, a small suburb of about 21,000, remains inhabited primarily by the descendants of French settlers who arrived hundreds of years ago. The skyline is dominated by the silver spires of Sainte-Anne de Varennes Basilica. Located directly across from my aunt and uncle’s house is a large, graphic monument, erected in 1850, commemorating the suffering of Jesus on the cross.
If there is any town that is made up of the type of traditional “pure laine” Quebecers that the Bloc loves, and that constitutes the purported backbone of the sovereign cause, it is Varennes. Most of my relatives here identify primarily with the nation of Quebec rather than Canada, if they’re not explicitly separatist. This is a place where people only celebrate la Saint-Jean, Quebec’s national holiday, and barely acknowledge Canada Day. One of my relatives, who is originally from Ontario, told me that his neighbours pressured him to take down the Canadian flag he had placed outside his house on July 1.
To try to puzzle out why such a dyed-in-the-wool francophone region had abandoned the Bloc, I visited Varennes, and went straight to Bugsy’s, the main bar in town.
Bugsy’s opens on a small, shed-like mudroom. Up a few steps and through a ramshackle door is the bar, and a giant pool table. A few of the mostly middle-aged patrons were still wearing their work clothes from the nearby chemical plant. A Habs flag adorned one of the walls. After my aunt introduced me to a group of customers as her “English niece from Montreal,” several people were extremely eager to share their views on politics. And they were all surprised about what had happened in the 2011 election.
“I expected changes, I expected that the NDP would make a lot of gains, but not as much as this,” said a local teacher, who asked not to be named. “Even here, in Mr. Malo’s riding, I was surprised.”
One of the contributing factors to the Bloc’s defeat was an inflow of anglophones and other ethnic groups, voters who are less sympathetic to a party that has traditionally appealed primarily to francophones. However, the people I talked to described this as a secondary factor, and stressed that the real reason for the change was exasperation amongst dependable pro-Bloc voters.
“I think it was a movement against the status quo, and that’s why people voted orange everywhere in Quebec,” the teacher said. “Even here, in Verchères-Les Patriotes where it was very pro-Bloc and very péquiste, it was Sana Hassainia who won as the representative for the NDP because people want change.”
“I don’t believe that Gilles Duceppe represented our ideas,” said a first-time NDP voter, who also didn’t want their name printed. “I felt that it was like he was just holding a job, that he was cynical, that we had given him this position and that he was entitled to it. It didn’t look like anything was moving.”
Besides being dissatisfied with the direction of the Bloc’s leadership, there was a strong feeling of disillusionment with the ideal of sovereignty.
“[The ideal] is alive among older people maybe, but most people think it is way too late for this,” said the NDP voter. “It goes against all the establishment, everything that is established, everything that is. There was the sovereignty movement in the time of [PQ leader René] Lévesque, but at the moment I don’t believe in it anymore. There’s no one that has the charisma to move people.”
“If it was supposed to happen, it would have happened over a decade ago,” said another patron, Jean-Guy Dagenais. “I think it’s burnt out.”
A “lesser of two evils” mentality seemed pervasive in many voters’ decision to elect the NDP. While few of the bar’s patrons seemed particularly enthusiastic or knowledgeable about the party, it was regarded as least atrocious national party.
Earlier, I had asked my aunt why she thought Sana Hassainia had beat the incumbent Bloc MP.
“People were looking for an exit door to not have to vote as usual,” she said. “After the results were announced, we were all asking each other, ‘who is this?’ She had never made any public appearances, no speeches, there were only posters plastered everywhere… You want to know how bad it is for the Bloc? They don’t even fucking know this person!“
She told me that the building in which Hassainia has set up her office is better known for being a hive of illegal activity. Apparently, there was a police crackdown involving an illicit “Chinese massage parlor” on one of the building’s floors several months ago.
But whatever you think of Hassainia and the NDP, they don’t stand for leaving Canada and, with it, its generous transfers of federal tax revenue.
“Everything that the federal government sends us, we would lose it if we became independent,” Dagenais said.
“Whether Quebec is able to manage on its own, I don’t know, because Quebec is one of the most indebted provinces in Canada,” said the NDP voter. “What would happen if Quebec became sovereign? I have no idea. For me, sovereignty would be darker than what we have now.”
As we saw at the federal level last May, a new provincial party has emerged this year that Quebecer voters hope will extricate them from the political quagmire. The Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), a party founded by former PQ minister François Legault and businessman Charles Sirois, has deliberately set aside the sovereignty question – its platform is primarily one of economic reform. Despite having been formed less than a year ago, it is already leading in the polls. In a poll conducted last December by CROP, possibly Quebec’s most trusted pollster, 39 per cent favored the CAQ, while 28 per cent preferred the incumbent Liberal party and just 18 per cent supported the PQ.
Tellingly, while the NDP and CAQ represent new, popular political forces in Quebec, they are almost diametrically opposed in their economic policies. The CAQ, described as a “centre-right” party, advocates fiscal austerity and supporting entrepreneurs, whereas the NDP endorses greater spending on public services and higher corporate taxes. Why are citizens who voted so strongly in favor of a party of the left now turning to the other side of the political spectrum? Since the main commonality between the NDP and CAQ is their newness and deliberate avoidance of the sovereignty issue, the answer may simply be that most people in Quebec are desperate to move past the tedium of the separatist debate. That’s what people are telling pollsters, anyway – another CROP survey last fall found that 71 per cent of Quebecers think the sovereignty debate is “outdated.”
And yet the sovereigntists blaze on. The most striking moment I witnessed during the PQ conference was when party president Raymond Archambault proclaimed that, “Quebecers should not let themselves be seduced by the hypnotizers of the coalition, those who are telling us that we must abandon our dreams, those whose projects are poorly-defined but who view the state as a supplier of services for the lowest cost, those who are evoking the specter of the public debt to make us forget another, much more menacing specter, the negation of who we are, the negation of the Quebec nation.”
The performances of Marois and Archambault that night actually reminded me a little of Hiroo Onoda, the Japanese soldier who held out in the Philippines for almost thirty years after the end of WWII, until his commander tracked him down to officially relieve him of his duties, and tell him the war was over. In the cavernous conference room of the Hilton Bonaventure, I felt like that commander. Madame, I wanted to tell Marois gently: come out of your foxhole – the other guys won.