National Column: Deep freeze sets in Quebec’s sovereignty issue

by Chantal Hebert

There was time not so long ago when the very notion of a federal government funding some June 24 festivities in Quebec would have raised eyebrows on both sides of the federalist-sovereigntist divide.

Ottawa has long contributed to the financing of St-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in the rest of Canada, but it had abstained from associating itself with Quebec’s more political FÍte nationale.

For sovereigntists and federalists alike, the idea that the high mass of Quebec nationalism would benefit from a federal tithe tended to be a non-starter. Or at least that was presumed to be the case until this year.

Last month, the announcement by Heritage Minister MÈlanie Joly that Quebec would for the first time receive a share of the $2.4 million her government is spending on June 24 festivities this weekend barely caused a ripple.

That is just one small token of an unabated cooling of Quebec’s long-standing debate over its political future.

To all intents and purposes, the sovereignty issue is in deep freeze.

A Mainstreet Research poll published by The Gazette in Montreal this week featured – for the second month in a row – disquieting numbers for the Parti QuÈbÈcois. A bit more than a year before the next provincial election, the party under its latest leader, Jean-FranÁois LisÈe, has fallen to third place behind the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir QuÈbec. At 22 per cent in the Mainstreet poll, the Parti QuÈbÈcois is barely four points ahead of the small, left-wing QuÈbec Solidaire.

The poll came on the heels of a month-long effort by the PQ to chastise QuÈbec Solidaire for refusing to enter into an electoral pact to beat the Liberals in the next election. It seems the decision to keep its distance from the Parti Quebecois is paying off for the party.

There was a time when non-sovereigntist voters would overlook the PQ’s referendum agenda at election time because of its activist agenda. But with the party’s referendum plan on hold until at least 2023, even sovereigntist supporters are looking for a reason to continue to back it these days.

The Quebec federalists who are seeking constitutional change are also feeling the chill.

A few weeks ago, Premier Philippe Couillard published – with a fair amount of fanfare – a policy paper designed to kick-start the discussion about Quebec’s place in federation with the rest of Canada and – eventually – to pick up the constitutional conversation where it had been left off in the mid-1990s.

That Couillard’s bid would fall flat outside the province was predictable. But it did not fare much better in Quebec.

It has been a paradoxical fact of Quebec political life for some time that while 30 to 40 per cent of Quebecers say they would support sovereignty in a referendum, only a fraction of that number wants another vote on the issue.

It seems many Quebec federalists are like-minded. Even as they say they crave some form of constitutional reconciliation with the rest of Canada, they have little appetite for a return to the constitutional fray. Quebecers are no more immune to constitutional fatigue than their counterparts in the rest of the country.

On Parliament Hill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not even give his Quebec counterpart the courtesy of waiting for the policy paper to be published to shrug it off.

In response to the prime minister’s dismissive response, two things did not happen: It failed to trigger anything approaching a popular backlash in Quebec, and no one within his Quebec caucus begged to differ with his approach.

Throughout its history, the federal Liberal party was home to a nationalist wing. Under Paul Martin, former ministers such as Pierre Pettigrew, the late Jean Lapierre and Lucienne Robillard, to name just those three, were some of its leading members. But the latest generation of Liberals from Quebec is, by and large, of a different persuasion.

If only for reasons of elementary political prudence, no prime minister since Brian Mulroney has wanted to allow the constitutional genie out of the bottle. But Trudeau’s resistance to being drawn back in Quebec’s existential debate stems from a larger conviction. He believes the issue is no longer a central one for a majority of Quebecers.

There is no lack of anecdotal evidence to back up that contention, including the fact Trudeau is the first federal leader in five decades to win a majority of Quebec seats without promising anything on that particular front.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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