It is not too soon to write off the Parti Québécois (PQ) independence strategy. Pledging to hold a referendum on Quebec independence shortly after winning an election, is not going to be a part of its next electoral platform. The voters rejected the idea in the recent provincial contest where the PQ vote fell to 28 per cent, the lowest level since 1970. PQ leader, André Boisclair, has ruled out a referendum on independence as a short-term goal of the party.

It is too soon to know how the PQ will adjust to its replacement by the Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ) as the second party in Quebec. With Mario Dumont and his call for Quebec autonomy now a louder voice of Quebec nationalism than the PQ, sovereignty hard liners are gunning for Boisclair. They may succeed in unseating him as leader, in which case the resulting struggle over the future of the party will weaken the PQ capacity to confront Dumont, or profit from the weakness of Jean Charest in Francophone Quebec.

Indeed it is not clear that the governing Liberal Party knows what to do with Dumont as the new leader of the official opposition in the upcoming minority Parliament. Charest tried to force the issue of sovereignty and the PQ, versus federalism and his Liberals — and French-speaking Quebec voted for autonomy and the ADQ

Dumont and his party, the ADQ, have stepped back into history with their embrace of autonomy as the guiding principle of Quebec politics. From the time of the Confederation debates, Georges Etienne Cartier argued for provincial autonomy within a federal union.

Cartier was a part of the Patriot Movement, an 1837 rebel who took refuge in the U.S. following the failed armed rebellion in Lower Canada. His embrace of the 1867 Canadian constitution was viewed as traitorous by some of his former comrades at arms, but he defended his actions by citing the autonomy gained by the province of Quebec, no longer a part of the united province of Upper and Lower Canada. His ability to rally Quebec marginalized his more nationalist former colleagues “les rouges.”

The Cartier view of provincial autonomy has carried the day throughout Canada. Since Confederation, the constitutional powers of the central government to disallow and overrule provincial legislation have fallen into abeyance. The centralization of finance in World War II did not lead to the control of taxation by the federal government. Quebec and Ontario insisted that powers of taxation be returned to the provincial level.

The emergence of the independence movement in Quebec in the 1960s built on French Canadian nationalism, but went well beyond it. The inspiration came from the national liberation movements around the world, the de-colonization of the planet. By the time of the first Quebec referendum in 1980 the revolutionary flavour was gone, but not the message of liberation.

The second loss in 1995 changed the PQ. The Bouchard government that followed made a conscious effort to turn its back on a culturally-based nationalism and become an inclusive civic nationalist party. However, its adoption of neoliberal precepts, notably a zero deficit budgetary policy, left the door open for the social movement activists who had nearly won the second referendum to leave the party in spirit, and in body.

Holding on to an independence strategy that had been tried twice and defeated twice may have seemed natural to those who stayed on with Bernard Landry to form another PQ government, but it was less and less attractive to an electorate prone to see the sovereignty movement as engaged in a straight power struggle with Ottawa, not embarked on a national liberation project.

Mario Dumont has become the champion of the French language population and Quebec national culture, filling the space vacated by PQ policy wonks, and technocrats pre-occupied with the fiscal imbalance, and the exercise of power in the grey zones of federal-provincial relations.

The autonomy of Quebec within Canada is the goal of the ADQ. It will not satisfy PQ supporters. But it is game on in Francophone Quebec as an alternative to sovereignty.

It would be a mistake for Canadians outside Quebec to equate Dumont with proponents of Quebec independence. Dumont and the ADQ are asking for what Cartier thought the 1867 constitution could deliver for Quebec: its autonomy and survival as a nation within Canada.

There may be good reasons to reject Dumont, but he and his nationalist followers are not PQ clones.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...