When I was growing up, the cool kids were pretty much all péquistes. Even among the anglos and allos, the political movement launched by René Lévesque, Gérald Godin, and others, had undeniable youthful allure. Think about it: on the one hand, you had a hard-drinking, hard-smoking ex-journalist and his merry band of poets, academics, and all purpose dreamers. On the other, you had…, well, you had Robert Bourassa and his drab-but-sensible technocrats. If you were a 17 year-old aspiring leftie who thought that politics was about the hope for a better, more just world, then the PQ was your go-to party. Now, granted, you don’t have much of an idea about what it might mean for the world to be better and more just when you’re 17, but surely, having a poet in a Cabinet position had to be part of it.
I never ended up voting for the PQ, I should add. I would certainly have voted “oui” in the 1980 referendum had I been old enough to cast a ballot, and I was devastated at just barely missing the 1981 vote, at which I would without a doubt voted for the PQ (the election was held in April, and I turned 18 in May). By the time the 1985 election rolled around, the PQ had started resembling the parties it had unseated in 1976. And by then I had figured out that I wasn’t really a sovereignist after all, though I was turned off by Trudeau’s triumphalist Canadian nationalism as well.
Many people in Quebec will celebrate the near-certain electoral defeat of the PQ in Monday’s election. Polls have them stalled below 30% support. There would be poetic justice if that was where they ended up. After all, the appalling right-wing identitarian turn that has been central to their short-lived minority government, and to their electoral campaign, was engineered by those within and around the PQ who felt that the “denationalization” of the party’s message under leaders like Lucien Bouchard and André Boisclair had been its undoing. How apt it would be if the electoral dividend of that fateful turn were exactly zero!
I can’t deny that I will breathe a sigh of relief if and when the PQ, in its present instantiation, is returned to the opposition benches (and – who knows? – perhaps even nipped at the finish line by the surging CAQ). The toxins that have been released into the body politic by the PQ over the course of the last few months with their heinous Muslim-baiting policies and rhetoric will take years to dissipate, and the PQ deserves to be severely punished at the polls for having set back the cause of inclusion in Quebec by a generation for what will turn out to be a mirage of short-term electoral gain.
At the same time, it’s hard not be just a bit saddened by this turn of events. How quickly a party that once painted very appealing pictures of a progressive Quebec in which all citizens – francos, anglos, allos – would work together toward the realization of the somewhat Quixotic dream of a kinder, gentler, francophone society somehow holding its own within a ocean of English, has degenerated into a chauvinistic, small-minded and small-hearted shadow of its former self! How eager it has been to abandon its own constitutive ideals in order to try desperately to cling to power (“You don’t want a referendum? Great! We don’t want one either! We won’t have one for at least two terms! We are the sovereignist party that promises absolutely nothing to promote sovereignty as long as you vote for us!”).
Looking at pictures of PQ rallies, you don’t see many young faces in the crowds anymore. Polls indicate that the 18 – 25 demographic is now actually of all groups the least likely to vote for the PQ. Today,the cool kids are definitely not péquistes. They have migrated to Québec Solidaire, or have simply been turned off by the nastiness of the politics that the parties of their parents’ generations are engaging in. (Who can blame them?) The PQ has morphed from a party that stood for progressive change, to a party that appeals to those groups within the electorate that are the most afraid of change – change brought by immigration, to be sure, but also by the diversity that is the inevitable result of living in a free society. The message of the PQ has for the past few years been “vote for us, and we will do as much as we can to keep those nasty religious signs out of your faces. But don’t worry! None of that will affect the religious signs that you are actually comfortable with, namely, your own! We simply have to re-baptize them as “patrimonial” and “non-ostentatious””
So if and when the PQ is shown handed its walking papers on Monday, my satisfaction in seeing it receive its comeuppance for the gutter politics in which it has engaged for the last few months will be tempered at least somewhat by sadness at the speed with which a party that embodied so much of what I hoped politics might be about when I was 17 has turned in a matter of just a few decades into the political zombie that it has now become.
And the party that stands primed to inherit its mantle as the prime progressive force in Quebec politics will have to engage in serious reflection about how to avoid the fate of the PQ, that is, how to turn itself into a potential party of government, without at the same time losing (too much of) its soul.