Pretty much everyone agrees that last Monday’s election was one of the most meaningful in Quebec’s recent history. But not everyone agrees on what that meaning was. Some observers rightly noted that the Parti Québécois’ campaign was shockingly, and surprisingly, incompetent. From the moment Pierre Karl Péladeau raised the issue of Québec’s independence, the PQ seemed to slip into improvisational mode. But unlike good improvisational practice, party officials and operatives were not playing with each other, but against each other. This was at no point more evident than when three péquistes dealt with the question of whether the PQ’s secularism charter might lead to state employees being dismissed in three radically different ways on the same day. A second-rank candidate stated that they very well might. Cabinet Minister Jean-François Lisée opined that they most certainly would not. And Premier Pauline Marois, in what must surely rank as one of the most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, make-it-up-as-you-go-along moments in recent campaign history, offered that the government might help find employment in the private sector for those public employees laid off because of their refusal to shed their religious apparel. No one likes the idea that the ship of state is rudderless. The Liberals and the Caquistes at least seemed to be reading from the same script, and thus may have appeared to a number of voters as safer options.
Another interpretation focused on the Secularism Charter. Though polls consistently revealed that more than half of the electorate supported Bill 60, there was always something strange about that support. Though the policy seemed to attract the assent of many voters when stated at a high level of abstraction (“state neutrality”, “Quebec values”, “equality of men and women”), its most palpable implication – that people might lose their jobs because of it — was accepted only by a small minority, somewhere on the order of 25%. Supporters of this interpretation would then justly remark that the PQ’s level of support on April 7 fell to precisely that – 25%. It turns out that most Quebeckers do not want to see their doctors, nurses, teachers, and daycare workers deprived of their livelihoods simply because they wear a hijab, a kippa, or a turban. Maybe, at the end of the day, we all overestimated the level of support for the policy. After all, can you really be said to support a policy when you oppose one of its main logical implications?
But the interpretation that has thus far had the most traction among pundits and among political operatives themselves is that the vote represented an epochal shift in support for the PQ’s raison d’être, which is to create the conditions that would ultimately lead to a winning referendum on sovereignty. According to this way of looking at things, by returning the PQ to the level of support they enjoyed before they were first elected to form the government in 1976, the Quebec electorate sent out the loud and clear message that it no longer wants to hear of full political independence, and of the divisive and traumatic referendum politics which would have to be engaged in to achieve it. Many in and around the PQ are sounding as if this is the dominant interpretation of the election result. No less a figure than Louise Beaudoin mused that perhaps sovereignty’s moment had passed. The fact that the PQ actually polled fourth among the province’s youngest voters would tend to support that verdict.
Who is right? All of these factors, and others besides, probably contributed to the PQ’s electoral debacle. But we will have to wait a bit in order to determine what fundamental changes the election will cause in the political landscape in Quebec for the real meaning of the 2014 vote to become clear. Hegel wrote somewhere that the Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. That’s a pretty opaque thought when stated that way, but people better versed than I am in things Hegelian inform me that it means that the true meaning of historical events is never clear to political actors themselves, caught up as they are in the heat of battle. Some historical distance is required.
I think that the true meaning of this election is unclear to us because we do not yet know how other political actors will play their parts in the political drama that has just been set in train by the Quebec election. And by “other political actors”, I mean the Rest of Canada.
Let me explain.
For many of us who were pleased by the PQ’s defeat, there was some poignancy to the result. It is possible (though, as we shall soon see, only possible) that the 2014 marked the end of the sovereignist chapter in Quebec’s history. Now, let me be clear, I am not a sovereignist. I believe that Quebec has the policy levers that it needs at its disposal for the people of Quebec to enjoy meaningful self-determination within the Canadian federal system, imperfect as that system is (is the idea of a perfect federal system even conceivable?). I fear that Quebeckers may actually have less power to act as a self-determining polity were it to go it alone.
But I totally get those of among my friends and colleagues who are sovereignists. I respect their aspirations, and I feel sadness, rather than anything like a political victor’s satisfaction, at the thought that their political dreams may be at an end. For above and beyond the relative levels of concrete powers that sovereignty and federalism afford, statehood has symbolic and political significance. Everywhere in the world, there are people who control the levers of the state, and there are people who lost out in the Westphalian game of musical chairs that has given rise to the state system as we know it today, and that have to make do with attempting to maintain themselves as distinct polities within states in which they are in a minority position.
The balancing act that successful multination states have to engage in requires that they grant their constituent national groups powers to enjoy meaningful self-determination short of full statehood, and that they recognize their own multinationality. Canada has been pretty good at the former of these requirements. But it has not been any good at all at the latter. The Canadian constitution does not represent Quebec as a constituent nation. And this is a problem Actually, it is two problems. It is a moral problem, because it fails to betoken toward some members of a federation who have had to reconcile themselves to the second-best scenario of self-determination within a federation in which they do not constitute the majority the attitudes of amity and civic friendship that should come from the realization that someone else has made a concession that other citizens of the ROC have not had to make.
And it is a political problem, because it contains the seeds for the resurgence of the sovereignist movement from the ashes of the PQ.
Why is this? Why can’t Quebec simply be happy with the very significant powers it undoubtedly possesses within the Canadian federation? Why, federalist morality notwithstanding, shouldn’t the rest of Canada simply treat Quebec like a political child that has finally ceased its tantrums? The answer is that if it does, the claims made by Quebeckers will continue to be interpreted not as the legitimate claims of a self-determining polity, but rather as the whining of a spoiled brat. And as the concept of Canada as being made up of several such polities becomes increasingly constitutionally, and dare I say, existentially meaningless for increasing numbers of Canadians in the ROC, this is the interpretation that is increasingly becoming dominant there. I was surprised and saddened at how prevalent this attitude was in English Canada in the various talk-radio and open-line shows in which I took part over the course of the election campaign.
I humbly submit the following to my friends in the ROC: Quebeckers are not spoiled brats whining for a bigger piece of the pie. They view themselves as members of a self-determining polity that requires certain powers in order to realize that self-determination. Sovereignty is not an illegitimate ideal. It is a noble ideal that is highly valued by many people in the world, including many who today enjoy the benefits of full statehood even as they deny the legitimacy of the aspiration of other people to it, or at least, to the recognition as a self-determining people that a multinational federation should express toward its constituent members. Though the longing for sovereignty may today be at a low ebb, I see nothing in the result of the 2014 election to suggest that Quebeckers have ceased viewing themselves as members of a self-determining polity. That self-understanding will eventually give rise to a renewed interest in sovereignty if the ROC does not acknowledge its legitimacy.
So what is the meaning of the 2014 election in Quebec? The answer to that question depends on the way in which the ROC interprets it in the weeks, months, and years to come. If leaders in the Rest of Canada simply interpret it as meaning that the Quebec brat has finally grown up and stopped its tantrums, then I believe that in time, the sovereignist movement will reemerge in some new form, though the PQ may not be its vehicle.
If on the other hand, political leaders in the ROC interpret this election (and perhaps also the last federal election, that saw the Quebec electorate reject the Bloc Québécois en masse for a federalist party) as giving rise to an historical opportunity, a main tendue inviting them to complete Canada’s coming to full self-consciousness as a multinational federation united by the political will to affirm the individual rights of all Canadians and the legitimate aspirations to self-determinations of all of its constituent polities (Quebec, to be sure, but also the First Nations with whom we share our land), then, perhaps, the right answer to the question with which I began this post is that the 2014 election will come to be seen as the moment at which the sovereignist movement died.
Now, I concede that there is not much political hay to be made for any party at this historical juncture in Canada in adopting, and in acting on, the latter interpretation. Some political leaders in the ROC are just as depressingly prone as are some of the political leaders in Quebec to give a great deal of weight in their political decision-making to the short-term electoral costs of standing up for minority rights. The mark of the true statesperson is however to look beyond the next election, (I think Kant said that) even if in doing so he or she is looked upon askance by voters.
My hope is that the winner of the 2015 federal election will be a true statesperson.