Is Canada Ready for the Return of Quebec Separatists?

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Quebecois have elected the separatist party with a slim plurality, but it and the province it represents face different challenges this time. 

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Parti Quebecois supporters cheer as election authorities announce the victory of candidate Serge Cardin. (Reuters)

While Americans were turning toward Charlotte on Tuesday night, Canadians from Bonavista to Vancouver Island were coming to the weary realization that they once again must deal with a separatist government in Quebec. For the first time in nine years, voters in the province elected into power the separatist Parti Quebecois and its leader, Pauline Marois, who will become the first female premier in the province's history. During the campaign, Marois promised repeatedly to implement what she calls "sovereignist governance," a plan to goad the federal government into transferring more power into provincial hands.

For most Canadians, and for most Americans who treasure Canada, this is the bad news. Any and every separatist government in Quebec raises the specter of another bruising battle with federalists over the shape and nature of the Canadian nation. And, to many Canadians, the very idea of a separatist government in Quebec kindles dire memories of a 20-year period, from 1975 to 1995, when it appeared that Canada itself really would split asunder. The 1995 referendum on sovereignty was barely defeated by a vote of 49.42 percent to 50.58 percent. It was that close -- and that was when the great federalist himself, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, was still alive and kicking.

But 2012 is not 1995 or 1980 or 1976, all years of previous independence referendums. Even though Marois hasn't ruled out another referendum on Quebec's sovereignty, Canada does not seemed to have freaked out about the separatist victory. The Toronto Stock Exchange was actually up in early trading on Wednesday, and it's easy to understand why. A handful of factors suggest that, at least for the moment, the PQ victory doesn't necessarily presage another cycle of vicious political fighting over the territorial future of America's favorite neighbor, the second largest country in the world. Here's why:

1. The PQ margin is slim. Despite a heavier-than-expected turnout, and years of often desultory leadership by provincial Liberals, the separatists won the right to form only a minority government. The PQ won just 31.9 percent of the vote; Quebec's Liberals won 31.2 percent. Marois has no political mandate to implement traditional policies -- such as what to do about the student riots this past spring over tuition increases -- much less a mandate to push aggressively on the sovereignty front. Before the sun rose this morning, many Canadian pundits were already predicting another election in the spring.

2. Support for Quebec independence is down. Even though the Parti Quebecois won its slender minority Tuesday night, polls show that Quebecois, by a significant margin, do not want the province to leave Canada. A Canadian poll released last week indicated that only 28 percent of Quebecois want independence, an historically low figure in its own right but also a figure that was down from 36 percent at the start of the election cycle. The more Quebecois have been confronted with the possibility of sovereignty, the less they appear to like it. They seem to care more about health care and the economy, which might sound familiar to observers of American politics.

3. There's a skeptical audience in the capital. In the past, elected leaders of the Parti Quebecois have dealt, in their sovereignty negotiations and related machinations, with Canadian prime ministers who had strong ties to Quebec. The current prime minister, Stephen Harper, has none. Here's an interesting take from The Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson:

Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were Quebeckers, with a good chunk of their caucuses from Quebec. But this federal government was elected by Westerners with the support of Ontario suburbs, including a large contingent of the four million immigrants who have come to this country in the past two decades. Mr. Harper has no mandate from them to appease. Neither is it in his nature.

Ms. Marois will demand new powers for Quebec over employment insurance, culture and communications, immigration and foreign policy, and who knows what else. The Conservatives, in response, will politely but firmly reject every demand. No negotiations. No accommodation. The federal focus will be on jobs, trade and eliminating the deficit -- and nothing else. That, simply, is what a strategy of non-engagement entails. Because their own governments were rooted in Quebec, previous prime ministers could not risk such a strategy. Because his government is rooted entirely outside it, Mr. Harper can risk no other. The national mood outside Quebec is powerfully opposed to being dragged back to the constitutional and cultural strife of the unquiet past. Mr. Harper will be guided by that mood.

Polls suggest that Canadians outside of Quebec are mostly mixed about how their federal government should react to the coming storm. A slight majority favor a hard line. Of course, the harsher the tone from Ottawa, the more opportunities Marois will have to tell her confederates in Quebec that separatism is still a cause worth fighting for. Trudeau, Mulroney, and Chretien might have been overly beholden to Quebec but each succeeded in holding together the country. For now, Marois must be content with what Canadian columnist Doug Saunders has deftly called "Plan B Nationalism."

4. Public rage is still simmering. As the premier-elect was on stage speaking Tuesday night in the wake of the PQ victory, an armed gunman shot and killed a bystander on the scene. Marois had to be hustled off the stage for a few minutes in a startling scene reminiscent of the stage-video of the June 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. While local police were reluctant initially to consider it a political attack, The Montreal Gazette reported:

Television footage showed a heavy-set man in a blue bathrobe and black balaclava yelling: "the anglos are waking up" in French with an English accent as he was led away by police. Then alternating between English and French he added: "There's going to be f----ing payback. It's enough. Wanna make trouble."

Despite the political tumult over the past 40 years, despite all the close calls and strife that has blown over the province from time to time, Quebec has been able to avoid the sort of political violence that we've seen more regularly in the United States. "Mais un fou gache la fete," was the subhead on the front page of the French-language Journal de Montreal on Wednesday morning. Roughly, "But a crazy spoiled the party."

5. Good government makes a difference. Marois and company will try to put a definitive spin on the mixed election -- "a loss for the winning party," is how one media wag put it -- but it's clear there is still strong support in Quebec for the opposition Liberal Party. Independence aside, with her slender minority government the only chance Marois has of surviving past next spring is to convince more Quebecers that the PQ is a party that can build up as much as it can tear down. That has always been the challenge for the separatist movement in Quebec and it so far has been a challenge the party has largely failed. "Il s'agit de l'economie, idiote." It's the economy, stupid.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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