Robert Libman: Time for Legault to clear the air on Quebec separation

The premier has been suggesting a sovereign Quebec is “viable,” but Quebecers aren’t interested in making sacrifices.

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Many Quebecers support the sovereigntist dream but realize it’s not necessarily realistic or in their best interest. They may be seduced by the romantic notion of Quebec being an independent country in North America, yet have been pragmatic enough in recognizing the economic downsides and/or still have some attachment to Canada.

Even with watered-down referendum questions, in 1980 and 1995, the No side prevailed anyway. Polls still show lingering support for sovereignty, hovering around 35 per cent overall — 45 per cent among francophones — but most Quebecers don’t want to hear about it because they’re more preoccupied with bread and butter issues.

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Nonetheless, the Parti Québécois this week dominated the news cycle with leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon presenting the theoretical “Year 1 budget” of an independent Quebec.

With rose-coloured glasses he gave us positive financials, suggested it’s in Canada’s interest to collaboratively sit down with Quebec to work things out rationally after a breakup, and declared Quebec would have its own currency and be one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

This entire debate has been moot for the past several years. However, with the Coalition Avenir Québec government showing signs of second-mandate fatigue, the door has started opening for the PQ to pose a threat in the next election, building on the momentum of its recent byelection win in Jean-Talon riding.

In recent election cycles, the PQ would typically downplay talk of separation as few Quebecers want to go through another divisive referendum rabbit hole and see other issues put on hold. But this version of the PQ won’t be able to get away with that.

After devastating results in the last two elections, the party had no choice but to “save the furniture” and desperately shore up its base with a staunch pro-separatism stance. The PQ promised to present the finances of an independent Quebec, which was done this week, and hold a referendum in its first mandate, if elected. So now St-Pierre Plamondon is stuck with it.

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The last time the PQ was this overt about holding a referendum in its first term was when Jacques Parizeau became leader to help rebuild the party in the late 1980s, three years after suffering a crushing defeat to Robert Bourassa’s Liberals.

The PQ won the 1994 election, after more than eight years of Liberal rule, and Parizeau was true to his word, holding a referendum in 1995 that the Yes side, which he led, lost by a hair.

St-Pierre Plamondon might be dreaming of history repeating itself with a PQ win in 2026, after eight years of CAQ rule — setting the stage for another referendum. But there are major differences between now and then.

In the early ’90s, Quebec politics was dominated by the failures of the Meech and Charlottetown constitutional accords, which reignited the sovereignty movement  and saw the separatist Bloc Québécois become the official opposition in Ottawa.

Now, the younger 18-34 demographic, traditionally the backbone of the sovereignty movement, is much less supportive than it used to be. Globalization, smartphones and the digital age, and numerous other priorities, make the notion of Quebec hiving itself off into its corner seem counterintuitive. 

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Premier François Legault has been treading carefully in his responses in recent days, suggesting a sovereign Quebec is “viable” but Quebecers aren’t interested in making sacrifices.

No one expects Legault to become Captain Canada but this should be the opportunity he desperately needs to shift focus away from his political failings and hammer away at his main rival, point out the flaws in the PQ’s raison d’être and warn of a potential nightmare if Quebecers go down that path.

But he can do so effectively only if he believes it himself. Will the real François Legault please stand up?

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc and as a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election.

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