Sunday, August 03, 2014

Quebec independence - Decline, and Fall?

A couple of weeks ago Maclean's political editor Paul Wells, taking note of the decline in pro-independence sentiment in Quebec, gave some of the credit to Prime Minister Harper. This struck me as silly at the time. But if Harper does not deserve credit for the decline in Quebec's sovereignty movement (and he does not despite his claims), what does explain the phenomenon?

The Quebec sovereignty movement and its key political force, the Parti Québecois have fallen on hard times. Yes, they did win a plurality of the seats in a provincial election in 2012, but that was in a close three way race where they won less than 32% of the popular vote. They then proceeded to lose the recent April 7, 2014 general election garnering just 25.4% of the vote. In a poll conducted by Léger Marketing in June 2014 their support had dropped further to just 20% of preferences placing them behind the Coalition Avenir Québec or CAQ.  The same poll placed support for sovereignty at 31% (and just 37% among francophones). The PQ has been the key political institution for the promotion of Quebec independence. The declining support for both the party and sovereignty means that the movement confronts a serious existential crisis.

And what about the actual support for sovereignty over time? Here are some charts. The first is from the blog of Jean-François Lisée, former PQ cabinet minister, in a post that acknowledges the overall slump in support for sovereignty. The chart begins in 1980, jumps to 1989 and captures the spike in support in 1990 following the death of Meech.  It combines CROP polls in blue with Léger in red with the 1980 and 1995 referendum results in black. It is the overall pattern that matters. Except for bumps just after the 1995 referendum and around the time of the sponsorship scandal what we see is steady decline since 1990 (somewhat before Stephen Harper assumed office).

In his blog Lisée argues that fear of a referendum, after Pierre Karl Peladeau raised the prospect of one when he entered the campaign, is what drove votes to the Liberals. He said in his post:
Pierre Karl’s arrival had a major effect. Until then, Quebecers perceived the Marois team as capable of governing as a sovereigntist government, but undoubtedly incapable of acting on its intention of holding a referendum.
When a business titan such as Pierre Karl announced that he was joining the PQ, that changed everything. Sovereigntists (and who can blame them?) enthusiastically greeted his arrival as providential, saying that it would calm people’s fears. Amplified by this chorus of applause, the PQ + PKP combination gave new credibility to the hypothesis of sovereignty.
And for half a million francophone Quebecers, this credibility reawakened a strong aversion to embarking once again on the adventure of a referendum.
The translation above comes from the journal Inroads, which has long provided excellent coverage and insights into Quebec politics.

Aversion to a referendum of course is rooted in opposition to sovereignty itself. As well, I have little doubt that the memories of the divisiveness of the 1995 referendum for Quebec francophone families add to feelings about this in Quebec. The PQ in office had avoided the issue of sovereignty but waved the nationalist flag with its "Charter of Values", a ploy that never garnered the political efficacy they hoped it might. The "Charter of Values" ended up being a symbol of the weakness of Quebec sovereignty sentiment, not a sign of its strength.

There is a detailed look at this loss of support for both the PQ and sovereignty in the blog of Université de Montréal sociologist Claire Durand.  Her blog on polling is titled Ah les sondages. She is one of the leading analysts of polling in Quebec and presents data in the chart below that report that support for sovereignty among younger Quebecers peaked around the year 2000 and has been steadily declining since, to the point where age differences among the Quebec francophones are significantly diminishing. By 2014 as one can see by the converging lines (blue is 18-34, green is 35-54 and red is 55 plus), age differences have all but disappeared.

Her research using CROP polls concludes there were two generations (by her definition) that supported the PQ and sovereignty, the baby boom born from 1945 to 1962, and those born between 1962 and 1977. She remains agnostic on whether younger voters who have abandoned support for sovereignty and the PQ can be persuaded to return to the fold, but there is no doubt at all about the current situation. The loss of support for the Parti Québecois among younger and middle-aged voters is particularly pronounced as the chart below illustrates.

Sovereignty is a critically important existential issue in Quebec. One should see it as fundamentally apart from day to day political debate. Why it has declined most likely revolves around matters of fundamental importance to French Quebeckers, particularly the status of the French language.

A key reason for the decline of pro-sovereignty sentiment is likely rooted in one of the greatest accomplishments of the first PQ government - Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language.  Political scientist Reg Whitaker wrote about this in 1991 on page 304 of his book, Sovereign Idea: Essays on Canada as a Democratic Community.  His words bear repeating:
... language is a sovereignty issue in Quebec in that it revolves around the sovereign right of the Quebec community through those political institutions under its control, to legislate the priority of the French language within the boundaries of the community. The historical irony is that the PQ's very success in framing and implementing a clear, effective and relatively liberal language law - arguably its major achievement in two terms in office - was also the single act which did the most to undermine the PQ's own option of sovereignty-association. If Quebec could exercise sovereignty in legislating language within the framework of the Canadian federation, perhaps it did not require sovereignty in the full political sense.  
I would argue that, in addition to Bill 101, federal bilingualism and the promotion of the French fact in Ottawa and across the country over time played an important role in undermining the case in Quebec for sovereignty. Earlier generations of Quebeckers experienced significant discrimination against them and their language, but now we have generations who have come to maturity in a different context. It is having an impact.

Given the steadiness of the decline it seems unlikely that with the exception of the Sponsorship scandal (and its effect has passed) the numerous developments of the late nineties and early aughts had any significant impact one way or the other on overall support levels for sovereignty. This would include the federal secession reference, the federal clarity law, devolution of labour market training, the Social Union Framework Agreement, cuts to federal transfers, and so on.

We see a parallel to the decline of the PQ in provincial politics in the decline of the Bloc Québecois federally. Recently, the Bloc selected a new leader from the 'pur et dur' hardline separatist wing of the party, Mario Beaulieu.  In a sense the weakness of sovereignty so clear today was foreshadowed by the big NDP win in Quebec in 2011 when the Bloc was reduced to four seats and 23.4% of the vote, a number very close to the PQ result on April 7. Bryan Breguet of Too Close to Call suggests that we are likely to see ongoing weakness of the BQ, although the selection of Beaulieu might be able to keep a hard core of party support that could elect a few MPs to the House of Commons. But he also calculates that if the BQ falls to less than 20% of the vote in the next election in 2015 it could wind up with zero seats. I think over the longer term it is the federal NDP that will benefit from the decline in pro-independence sentiment in Quebec.

In the day to day back and forth of politics we often overlook or forget about the fundamentals.  We should not. The evolution of Quebec with respect to the independence debate is extremely important.