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Monday, Sep. 17, 2012

Quebec vote signals uncertainty for Canada


By JOHN J. METZLER

MONTREAL — Political uncertainty shadows Quebec in the aftermath of a contentious provincial election campaign. Since the vote, the specter of separatism has re-emerged in the multiethnic Canadian province where political rhetoric by the French-language-focused Parti Quebecois could bring about the return of economic instability and undermine fragile business confidence.

In a tightly contested three-way race, voters went to the edge but stopped short of giving the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) a majority. Still, the shadow has not passed as the PQ will now form a minority government, albeit with a plurality of 32 percent of the vote. Emotions and tragic violence marred the end of the campaign. A shooting killed a bystander at the PQ's victory rally in downtown Montreal.

Now, after nine years in power, Quebec's federalist Liberal Party has run out of ideas, steam and luck. The final straw for longtime Premier Jean Charest was trying to institute lukewarm education reforms under which university students would pay an additional $254 a year for their studies (the cost of a few sweatshirts at American Universities). Some 84 percent of total university costs are paid by taxpayers.

Not surprisingly, Quebec is the most indebted of all Canadian provinces; yet the PQ wishes to expand the layer of public benefits. Already taxpayers face a combined 14.9 percent sales/value-added tax.

Protests started in the spring, and before long, radicals had seized the movement. The premier called snap elections, which in turn served to jump-start opposition parties to get back into the fray to take on an unpopular, corrupt and clueless government.

Charest lost his own seat in the election, though the Liberals still got 31 percent of the vote. A new party Coalition for Quebec's Future (CAQ), holding some conservative values, gained 27 percent.

The province of Quebec holds a unique legacy and indeed political fault line. The two founding peoples were the French and, later, English-speaking settlers. Quebec formed the keystone of New France in North America until the British toppled French rule in 1759 and steadily supplanted control over this part of Canada. To this day car license plates "Je Me Souviens" (I remember) post a less-than-subtle reminder of a romanticized history.

As late as the 1960s , French Canadians, though the majority, faced discrimination. Such grievances planted the seeds of the early separatist movement. Parti Quebecois had morphed from a self-styled defender of French cultural and linguistic rights into a political movement when it gained power in 1976 under the charismatic, if controversial leader, Rene Lesveque. The party was best known for its Draconian linguistic legislation, which has marginalized English and stigmatized anyone who does not view Quebec through blue-colored lenses.

Originally the PQ was populist with conservative, nationalist and social reformers under one tent. Lysiane Gagnon of the La Presse newspaper opined that Premier-elect Pauline Marois, "the first PQ leader to anchor the party resolutely to the left, is a sharp break with the tradition of building a large coalition of right and center-leaning sovereignists."

But it's PQ political rhetoric that causes discord. In a blunt interview with Toronto's Globe & Mail, Marois said the federal government in Ottawa will have to treat Quebec like a nation, not a province: "We won't be satisfied with getting more powers. What we want is Quebec sovereignty."

She stressed that her party would press for a referendum on the issue of what amounts to independence from Canada.

Yet, other eagerly awaited referendums on "sovereignty" from Canada fell flat in 1980 and 1995, when the majority of French-speaking Quebeckers refused to take the final step of secession.

Last week a CROP Poll survey showed that a mere 28 percent of Quebeckers would vote yes if a referendum were held. Though a very hot political issue in the 1970s, the long-simmering embers of Quebec separatism seemed settled.

Since the onset of PQ rule in the late 1970s, large sectors of the Anglo business community have left Montreal for Toronto. Empty buildings, the former home of some of Canada's greatest banks and businesses, remain the legacy. Saint James Street — now Rue Saint Jacques, once the Wall Street of Canada — is a near-lifeless canyon of magisterial mostly shuttered banks and firms with French "For Rent" signs. Some are being turned into pricey apartments.

In the aftermath of the vote, the Townshippers Association, a Sherbrooke business group reflecting the interests of the English-speaking community, urged Marois to focus on what the majority wants: "economic development, job creation and debt reduction."

The resource-rich province remains part of the G-8 industrial world's most successful economy, Canada. Quebec holds much of the attributes of a classic "nation, such as language, culture and identity, and guards them jealously.

Still, what is rarely said is that much of this unique and separate status is financially subsidized by Ottawa.

Political perceptions matter as much as reality. Quebec may now have to face the consequences of the PQ's rhetoric.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of "Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift?" Contact jjmcolumn@earthlink.net


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