National Post Barbara Kay: Quebec’s electoral rollercoaster

National Post - Wednesday April 2nd, 2014

Ethnic nationalism is a fire that can be banked, but it is rarely extinguished.

I’m the early bird in my household and get to the newspapers first. Every day my husband comes downstairs with the same question on his lips: “Any new polls?” He’s nervous; I’m nervous. Everyone we know is nervous. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. Not for the first time, of course, but Quebecers never get used to an electoral panic other provinces never know.

When the campaign began, we despaired at the Parti Québécois’ quick leap to 26 percentage points over the Liberals. Then came the bombshell of Pierre Karl Péladeau (PKP) and his sovereigntist fist pump. PKP boastfully declared that he wants a country “my children can be proud of” — as though this poster child for unearned power and privilege had endured in his life one humiliation after another; and as though growing up both Québécois and Canadian is experienced even by children as a yoke of mortification. What child comes to such a conclusion without incitement? It was a disgusting statement. (And it would have been a good moment for Brian Mulroney to step away from Quebecor.)

Then elation, as it became clear that the fist pump and the resulting pivot to sovereignty talk had backfired, opening the door to legitimate charges that a majority for the PQ meant a third referendum. (Why did it take PKP to drive home the obvious? Achieving sovereignty is article one of the PQ charter.) The Liberals surged in the polls. The first leadership debate put Pauline Marois on the defensive and revealed Philippe Couillard as cool under fire, with statesmanlike resolve and gravitas. Our nerves stabilized. We began to dream of a Liberal majority.

Second debate. Couillard on the hot seat now. Uh oh. He went out on a long, shaky limb. “Bilingualism isn’t a threat,” he said. “Knowledge of English is indispensable.” Was this a mortal blow to his bid for a majority? Could it actually bring him low?

Pause to reflect. Where else but Quebec can a PQ candidate get away with long-discredited anti-Semitic canards (Louise Mailloux)? Where else but Quebec can a fawned-upon activist get away with expressing fear of being treated by a hijab’d doctor because “I would say to myself … in her religion, women are not given the same care as men, and the elderly are allowed to die sooner” (Janette Bertrand, the swimming-pool alarmist). And yet, where else but Quebec can a political leader send a palpable tremor through the media by voicing what every reasonable Québécois believes: that bilingualism is an asset?

In 1995, drunk and bitter at the narrow loss of the second referendum, Jacques Parizeau blamed “money and the ethnic vote” and, throwing caution to the winds, said it was time to speak about “nous,” meaning ethnic Québécois. Everyone pretended to be shocked, for the sovereignty project wasn’t supposed to be about ethnicity; it was supposed to be a reasonable idea that would benefit all Quebecers — and back then, according to the theory even ardent sovereigntists paid diligent lip service to, we were all real Quebecers.

If nothing else, the PQ’s divisive tenure has stripped away that thin veneer of hypocrisy. Nobody is pretending anymore that the sovereignty dream is about anything else but “nous.” Every initiative the PQ wants to pass is designed to cleanse the province of “nous autres.” And as it happens, “nous autres” and Montreal are synonymous. Like the bad mother in the Solomonic tale, sovereigntists would rather watch an ethnically pure baby die than see it thrive multiculturally

There remains a robust cadre of activists in the universities and media, ready to fill a new generation with the same identity politics that fuelled the ambitions of Marois and company

Many amongst “nous autres” comfort themselves with the mantra that the aging Marois generation is the last gasp of the separatist movement that came into bloom in their youth, and will perish with them. Looking around the world, I find that hard to believe. Ethnic nationalism is a fire that can be banked, but it is rarely extinguished.

It is true that young francophones in the marketplace today seem indifferent to the sovereigntist dream. But there remains a robust cadre of activists in the universities and media, ready and willing to fill a new generation with the same revolutionary ideals and identity politics that fuelled the ambitions of Marois and company.

So on April 7 we must hope for a Liberal majority and be content with a Liberal minority. But only as a respite. For we should not assume in either case that a mere change of government will turn “nous” into “tous” amongst ethnic nationalists. The task for those identifying as Canadians in Quebec, whatever their language or ethnicity, is to fireproof Montreal against the next conflagration.