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Quebec clings to separatist sentiments and Ottawa's subsidies

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By John J. Metzler

MONTREAL — Political uncertainty shadows Quebec in the aftermath of a contentious provincial election campaign.  Now in the wake of the vote, the specter of separatism has re-emerged in the multi-ethnic Canadian province where the political rhetoric by the French-language focused Parti Quebecois could return 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 shall now form a minority government albeit wit a plurality of 32 percent of the vote.

Emotions and tragically violence marred the end of the campaign with a shooting, killing a bystander, at the PQ’s victory rally in downtown Montreal.

Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois is grabbed by a member of her security team after a shooting took place outside the venue where she was giving her winning address to supporters following the Quebec provincial election in Montreal, Quebec, Sept. 4, 2012. / Christinne Muschi / Reuters

Now after nine years in power, Quebec’s federalist Liberal party had run out of ideas, steam, and luck.  The final straw for longtime Premier Jean Charest was trying to institute lukewarm education reforms where University students would pay an additional $254 a year for their studies (that’s about the cost of a few sweatshirts, not classes at American Universities). Still some 84 percent of the total University costs are paid by the taxpayers.

Not surprisingly Quebec is the most indebted of all Canadian provinces; yet the PQ wishes to expand the layer cake 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 jumpstart 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 (with a small c) 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 to a romanticized history.

As late as the 1960’s , French Canadians, though the majority,  faced discrimination. Such grievances planted the seeds of the early separatist movement. The Parti Quebecois has 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 was  “the first PQ leader to anchor the party resolutely to the left, a sharp break with the tradition of building a large coalition of right and center-leaning sovereignists.”

But it’s the PQ political rhetoric, which causes discord.  In a blunt interview with Toronto’s Globe & Mail, Pauline 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 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 merely 28 percent of Quebeckers would vote Yes if a referendum were held.  Though a very hot political issue in the 1970’s, the long simmering embers of Quebec separatism seemed settled.

Since the onset of the PQ rule in the late 1970’s large sectors of the Anglo business community left Montreal for Toronto; the legacy remains the empty building of some of Canada’s greatest banks and businesses.  Saint James Street/now Rue Saint Jacques, once the Wall Street of Canada, is a near-lifeless canyon of magisterial mostly-closed banks and firms, now either with For Rent signs (in French of course) or being turned into pricy apartments.

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

Yet 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”; language, culture, identity and she 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 U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.

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