Published May 28, 2011
QUEBEC CITY – For all the stereotypes of Canada as a ho-hum, steady-as-she-goes sort of place, politics here can be a wild ride.
With virtually no warning from pollsters, voters have dealt Quebec's separatists a stunning humiliation and set off a debate about whether the French-Canadian province even needs a separatist movement in this globalized age.
The upheaval wrought by the May 2 parliamentary election is not unusual; in 1993 voters stripped the ruling conservatives down from 151 seats to just two in one of the biggest reversals in the annals of parliamentary democracy.
This time they reshuffled the deck four ways: by routing the Bloc Quebecois separatists; handing an unassailable majority to a conservative prime minister and Ronald Reagan admirer; boosting the leftist New Democratic Party from obscurity to leader of the opposition; and relegating the Liberals, long considered Canada's natural party of government, to third place.
The Bloc Quebecois slumped from 47 seats to 4 in the 308-seat federal Parliament, rendering it all but impotent at the national level at a time when Quebec separatists are also out of office in their own province.
Separatism "may not be dead, but it's hardly healthy. You can't divorce the election results from the larger picture of sovereignty versus federalism," says Chantel Hebert, a respected political commentator from Quebec.
One reason may be that Quebec, 80 percent French-speaking, has plenty of independence even without quitting Canada. It sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favoring French-speakers, bases its legal code on France's and has legislation favoring the use of French over English.
Still, the province of 7.8 million people always has been a contentious subject: in the 1760s, when the British completed their takeover of what was then called New France; in 1867, when the country of Canada was formed as a dominion under Queen Victoria, and a century later, when it thrilled to visiting French President Charles de Gaulle and his cry of "Vive le Quebec libre!" — long live free Quebec.
Spasms of terrorism in the 1960s and late 1970 injected menace into the campaign, and a "language police" on patrol for overly prominent displays of English, added an Orwellian undertone that triggered an exodus of English-speakers, mostly to neighboring Ontario.
Since then Quebec has gone through one election, referendum or constitutional parley after another, sometimes falling a hairsbreadth short of approving secession.
Even now, no one is predicting the death of the independence movement. For one thing, this was a national election, and the Parti Quebecois (as opposed to the Bloc Quebecois) remains strong as a provincial party, even if out of power now. It stands a good chance of winning the next provincial election, in 2012 or 2013, at which point it could hold another referendum on secession.
By contrast, the New Democratic Party, which picked up many of the Bloc Quebecois' seats, has no provincial home of its own, and seeks to represent the left throughout Canada.
From 1993 until this month's rout, the Bloc had won the majority of Quebec's 75 seats in six straight federal elections. Now it may want to shift its efforts from contesting national elections to boosting the provincial party as the standard-bearer of the independence quest.
Some are making the argument that the secessionists will have better luck with a referendum under the current prime minister, Stephen Harper. Although Harper speaks good French — anyone who does not could not win election to his job — he comes from distant Alberta and may be too conservative for Quebec's broadly center-left taste. His Conservative Party lost half of its 10 Quebec seats in the election.
But for now, the defeat is so thorough that a whole wave of young unknowns, mostly New Democrats, suddenly find themselves in Parliament. They include five college students and an assistant bar manager, Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who barely speaks French and who took a Las Vegas vacation in mid-campaign.
Even Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe was unseated. "It's very hard to fight change, especially change represented by ghosts — candidates who didn't bother campaigning, who didn't speak French," he grumbled.
Not all Quebec French-speakers want to quit Canada. The province currently is governed by the Liberals whose leader, Premier Jean Charest, is a staunch federalist who rejoices at the swing to the NDP.
"Quebecers chose to support a political party that believes in building Canada, and that's significant," he told The Associated Press. "They don't want the referendum, sovereignty, independence option. We're not there. They've moved on from that issue, so that's a very positive sign."
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois acknowledged the election result was "a hard moment," but added in an interview with The AP: "I have bad news for the people who think that sovereignty is dead: It is not the case."
However, random interviews with voters in Montreal and in Quebec City, the capital and one of the oldest cities in North America, confirmed that Quebec identity was not a top priority.
Emma Potvin, 29, used to vote for the Bloc Quebecois, but "I was just a bit tired of them talking about separation," so she switched parties.
Some pointed to a generational shift. Younger voters who have grown up with Celine Dion and Cirque de Soleil are more at ease with the English-speaking world where those icons found their global audience. "For certain their view of English is different," said commentator Hebert. "For them English is the language of the Internet. It's kind of a passport to do things. It is not the language of someone who colonized or conquered you."
They are not hostile to sovereignty, she said, it is just "not the priority in the way that it was for their parents."
Sitting with a friend on a Montreal stoop, 33-year-old Erik Gaudreault said he feels more Canadian than Quebecois and thinks his compatriots should be bilingual and think big. Language is not the problem right now, he said. "It's jobs, it's money... Education, health, all the problems we have in Quebec."
On the other hand, there are those like Serge Perreault, a 44-year-old forklift driver in Montreal, who worry that the NDP, as a national party, will not be able to serve his province the way the Bloc Quebecois did. "Is a federal party able to defend Quebecois people, Quebec culture, to defend a province?" he asked.
Jack Layton, leader of the triumphant NDP, sees Canada as "a remarkable experiment in two peoples coming together," but he recognizes that Quebecois at times "haven't felt respected and have worried about the survival of their language in this very large sea of English-speaking North America."
He also cautions against writing separatism's obituary, but believes they have achieved much in preserving their culture. "The positive change has taken the edge and urgency off the independence question," Layton told The AP.
One force bridging the cultural divide is sports, whether last year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver or hockey any day of the week. In fact, when the French leg of the election debates (candidates must by law debate in both English and French) conflicted with a Montreal Canadiens Playoff hockey game, it was no contest: The debate was postponed.
Selena Ross in Montreal contributed to this report.