OTTAWA-The election landscape has changed in the predominantly-francophone province of Québec. On September 4, les Québécois elected a minority pro-independence party, le Parti québécois (PQ) with Pauline Marois at its helm.
This makes life a lot simpler for Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister. A referendum on the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada, a lifelong dream for Marois, is on the backburner at least for now.
Still, the worst thing for Harper would be to be too complacent, observers say.
If he doesn’t want to go down in history as the prime minister “who lost Québec” he has to “calculate his moves,” says political scientist Louis Massicotte from l’Université Laval in Québec City.
That means avoiding actions that would “provoke” the government of Québec. While the support for a sovereign Québec is low, the “capacity for rebound” is always there, as he noted in an interview for this post.
Canadians have been through a divisive Québec referendum campaign on independence twice, once in 1980, and once in 1995. Both times, les Québécois voted to stay within the Canadian federation but the razor-thin victory for the “No” side in 1995 sent shockwaves throughout the country.
On election night, Marois grabbed 54 seats, and the Liberals, 50. The Liberal Party lost after nine years in power. Outgoing Liberal Premier Jean Charest lost in his own riding. The newly-formed Coalition Avenir Québec took 19 seats and the rest of the 125 seats were picked up by smaller pro-sovereignty parties and the Green Party. Marois’ victory speech was interrupted by a shooting outside a convention centre in Montréal. One person died.
The PQ election could usher in a new phase of Québec-Ottawa confrontations. But Marois acknowledged she would take “responsible actions” in a spirit of compromise.
Marois has vowed to demand control over employment insurance and the telecommunications sector and more power over foreign aid, culture and social programs.
So far, Harper has played it safe. Ottawa has promised to collaborate with the new PQ government as long as the new government is acting “in good faith.” The election results in Québec indicate “a pretty strong desire for change,” he told Bloomberg News, but voters denied Marois “any kind of mandate to pursue the separation of Québec or the division of the country.”
The Harper government has adopted a “business as usual” attitude, as Harper’s Québec political lieutenant in Québec, Christian Paradis, put it. But it has already turned down any demands to give Québec control over the employment insurance program (which would require a constitutional change).
The government signalled, however, that an administrative arrangement could be considered.
“We don’t have the mandate to dismantle the federal government,” Paradis told reporters. “It’s clearly a federal jurisdiction.”
Some observers feel Harper will not and should not budge on Québec demands.
But the best approach is “not to ignore” the new democratically elected premier of Québec, says Benoit Pelletier, a political scientist from the University of Ottawa. Of course, if Marois has a hidden political agenda to advance the independence cause, the Harper government will not play that game, he says.
But it would be unwise “to say no for the sake of saying no” because that would be unproductive.
The best plan, he says, is to “make the demonstration of the viability of federalism” and to treat responsible demands “with respect, even if there are calls in the rest of Canada to not give up an inch to Mrs. Marois. But let’s not forget that behind Marois, there is the function of premier.”
By responding to legitimate demands from Québec, it shows that the “province can progress within Canada,” says Pelletier. Harper has shown in the past that he can put his principles of “flexible federalism” into action. He may have a lot of opportunity to do so in the next few months.
Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.