The Quebec independence movement is licking its wounds after a surprisingly heavy defeat for the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in Monday’s provincial election. If elected, PQ had promised to hold a referendum on independence from Canada but instead finished third with 28% of the vote, their worse electoral showing since 1973.
Jean Charest, the region's Liberal premier, narrowly won re-election but will now lead the province's first minority government in 130 years. 38% of the province’s 5.6 million electorate voted Liberal who took 48 of the 125 seats. The result means that the Liberals have lost 24 seats since the last election.
The main winners were the right-of-centre Action Democratique du Quebec party (ADQ). They finished second with 32% of the vote and 41 seats (up 36 since the last election). The ADQ wants more autonomy for Quebec but does not want to secede from Canada. Their conservative platform consists of attacking debt, allowing more private medical clinics, a stronger law and order policy and moving people off welfare. 36 year old charismatic party leader Mario Dumont now holds the balance of power and represents a new force in a province used to the bipolar opposites of separatists and federalists.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the PQ defeat reflects the central government's efforts to give more power and resources to provinces. “We're very encouraged to see that we have a government that is opposed to having another referendum, and we have an official opposition that is opposed to having another referendum," Harper told reporters today in Ottawa. “It's good news for this government, but it's also good news for Quebec and Canada."
Quebec has had two independence referendums in the last 26 years. In 1980 the Quebec provincial government asked for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty association. Nearly 60 percent of Quebeckers voted no. There was a second almost identical referendum in 1995 on the sovereignty issue. The margin was much closer but the “no” vote still triumphed 51% to 49.
The white history of Quebec dates back to 1534 when Jacques Cartier erected a cross on the shore of the Gaspé Peninsula. He took possession of the land in the name of the king of France. But Cartier's gesture changed nothing and the province remained the haunt of aboriginals and the occasional fisherman until 1608. In that year Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec and established the first permanent colony. The French went on to establish Trois-Rivières and Montreal and claimed the entire watersheds of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers but were blocked from further expansion by hostile Iroquois.
The British, meanwhile, built their own forts at Oswego and Halifax and the government granted lands in the Ohio Valley to the Ohio Company. Adventurous traders set up bases in the region which led to inevitable clashes with the French. In 1750 the two European powers met in Paris to try to resolve the territorial disputes. Two years later, the new Governor-General of New France, Marquis Duquesne, sent troops to Pennsylvania to build forts. The lieutenant-Governor of Virginia demanded they leave. Under the command of a young Virginian officer named George Washington, the British launched a pre-emptive attack in 1754, the first strike in what became known as the French & Indian War.
The war would drag on for eight years as the British slowly gained the upper hand. The key turning point came in 1759 with the capture of Quebec City after a three month siege. By the end of 1760, Montreal fell to the British and the war was ended with the capture of Fort Detroit. British de facto control of Eastern North America was confirmed in 1763 with the Treaty of Paris.
But nothing much changed in Quebec despite British control. In 1774, authorities passed the Quebec Act. This act guaranteed the French freedom of worship and property rights under French civil law and gave the Catholic Church the right of collecting tithes which ensured it would keep its status as the established church. In 1837 French and English speaking Canadians rebelled against the British garrison. Although the rebellion was brutally put down, Britain was forced to consider independence. The Province of Canada was founded in 1841 and the Quebeckers gained a key victory by insisting that the French language have legal status in the new entity.
Calls for Quebec independence remained muted until the 1960s. The Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) was formed in February 1963 with the goal of seeking full independence from Canada. The group was most active in the period up to 1972 until it was proscribed by the Wars Measures Act. Although the group failed, their ideas permeated the mainstream. In 1974, French was declared the official language of the province and a separatist party won the provincial elections two years later. Although the separation referendum failed in 1980, dissatisfaction with Quebec’s status remained.
In 1987 the Government proposed a set of amendments known as the Meech Lake Accords in an effort to persuade Quebec to sign the 1982 constitution. Quebec demanded a status as a “distinct society”. But the proposal was defeated by aboriginal politicians who felt that the First Nations had not been adequately involved in the process.
The defeat of the Accords led to the rise of the Parti Quebecois who took power in Quebec. They organised and narrowly lost a second referendum in 1995. Then Party leader Jacques Parizeau blamed the sovereignist defeat on "money and the ethnic vote" and declares that "we will have our country and we will get our revenge." Four years later the federal government passed the Clarity Act, which set out the rules by which a province could secede from Canada.
The Clarity Act demanded that in order for separation to occur, a referendum on independence in a given province would have to have "clearly" framed its question to voters in terms of independence, and that the result would have to be a "clear majority" in favour. While the “clearness” of the question and the result were not defined, the act ensured that Quebec could not unilaterally declare independence unless by a substantial majority. The PQ opposed the act and said Quebec would proclaim independence even if they won by just one vote. In a 2005 TV interview Parizeau said that the Clarity Act "meant nothing" and would be ignored. But this week’s election has shown the Quebec electorate haven’t ignored it.
Many analysts are calling this weekend’s vote a watershed election. For decades Quebec politics have been dominated in turns by either federalist or separatists groups. Now this polarisation will be forced to end. Who ever forms government will have to work within a coalition and make some unpalatable choices with likely compromise on core policies.
But some are optimistic that this outcome is for the best. The Canadian dollar rose on news of the election results finishing up 0.35 US cents overnight Wednesday. George Davis, chief technical strategist at RBC Capital Markets said the strong showing by the ADQ strengthens the position of Conservative PM Harper. "I think the market would view anything that would move the federal government towards a majority as positive," said Davis.