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A retired senior American diplomat, the author held the position of minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa for four years during the mid-1990s and has followed the Canadian scene closely since then. In this detailed analysis of the Québec separatist controversy, he proffers an answer to the question: Is the issue a dead dog, or is it only sleeping? ~ Ed.always another sovereignty referendum from crisis. This continuing circumstance requires U.S. policy makers regularly to look over their shoulders to the north, regardless of other crises de jour.

“Québec is akin not to an abused, but a ‘disrespected’ wife of Canada. The relationship is not working and the wife would like to leave, but believes that the ‘judge’ will not let her depart. Having tried twice to leave, the wife is now apathetic. . . .”
Jean-François Lisée


UEBEC REMAINS the flashpoint for Canada. This volatile status does not necessarily forecast a sanguinary interlude in the manner of Kosovo or Chechnya, but it clearly complicates matters in assessing the current balance of the “two solitudes” from which Canada is constructed and has endured since its creation in 1867. Thus “Whither Québec/Canada?” is a constant question made more poignant when the 1995 referendum in Québec, which would have led to substantial reordering of the Canadian federation if not necessarily to Québec independence, failed by less than one percent. Today Canada appears tranquil, but balanced on a knife edge; it is always another sovereignty referendum from crisis. This continuing circumstance requires U.S. policy makers regularly to look over their shoulders to the north, regardless of other crises de jour.

In June 1999, little more than six months after the Parti Québecois (PQ) electoral victory, Canada was abuzz over what would happen next in Québec. Would there be another referendum? If so, when? What were the “winning conditions” necessary to hold a referendum? Conversely, had the PQ government in its second mandate “gotten old very fast”? Was the government so beset with the actuality of strikes (by nurses) and the prospects of more union action (“a hot autumn”) that it had lost its way? Was Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard so dispirited with losing the popular vote in the November election that he was contemplating retirement — sooner rather than later?

Parti Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard (L) walks with Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe (R) during a rally in the Montreal suburb of Laval, October 30, 2000.

Photo by Shaun Best (Reuters)

A year later, in June 2000, circumstances were significantly different. In Ottawa, despite the then ongoing Senate debate over the Clarity Bill, the dominant clatter-chatter concerned the political plans of PM Jean Chretien and the evolution of the leadership race in the Canadian Alliance (CA). One had to probe and question directly to generate comment on Québec issues. While obviously the circumstances were different in Montréal and Québec City, political intensity was muted.

As it takes its first steps into the 21st century, Québec appears more at peace than at any time in the past decade. It is not that Québec sovereignists have given up or that faith in their cause has atrophied, but all have realized that the times are not timely. Not being fools, they have determined to wait: some grimly, some resignedly, some hopefully. Politically, the PQ dominates the scene; its preeminence is a function of good fortune and weak opposition, but it is real. Pollsters and pundits predict it will win an unprecedented third mandate when next it goes to the electorate. The only puzzle remains Mario Dumont and his supporters: Are they real and what do they want?

The Province: All politics are local . . .

     Good governance. It appears clear that the PQ has settled in to deliver its most essential “winning condition”: good government. Such is a winning condition not just for any sovereignty referendum, but for reelection. And this is a party that appears to have decided it must be reelected before holding a referendum.

Fortunately for the PQ, the myriad problems that beset any administration in power have been eased by money. Our complex societies at this point in history have generated complex problems; financial resources may not solve them, but throwing money at least gives the impression that an administration is doing something. Québec — as well as Canada, the United States, and much of the Western world — is enjoying very substantial prosperity. Year by year, inflation, unemployment, and budget deficits have been down. Budget surpluses mean that taxes can be lowered and some careful new spending initiated. Good times are rolling, so the appreciation is that while there are significant problems in education and health care, they appear resolvable concerns rather than society rending catastrophes.

Bouchard at rest. In his career there have been a kaleidoscope of Lucien Bouchards. He has spun at frenetic speed through many of the Québec and federal political parties before coming to rest as leader of the PQ and Québec premier. In contrast to 1999 reports of a stressed, distraught, even tormented Bouchard, torn between remaining with his separatist dream and becoming a full time father piling up his fortune for retirement years, we have a significantly more mellow Bouchard in vintage 2000.

There is no question that he has been buoyed by his recent ninety-one percent party congress approval rating. The previous congress which ranked him in the mid-1970’s was deemed an insult; a repeat of such semirejection could have seen him flounce out of politics. Consequently, his stratospheric approval, which was not widely predicted in advance, can be interpreted as vindication for Bouchard both personally and politically. To be sure, Bouchard campaigned harder for party support than in the past, but for its part the PQ realizes that there simply is no alternative to Bouchard. He is the horse they must ride if they are going to achieve a new relationship with Ottawa. Of course, it helps when the opposition is ineffectual.

Charest doesn’t take command. Québec Liberal Party leader Jean Charest — “Captain Canada” — has become “Captain Kangaroo.” Yes, this appraisal is unfair, but it reflects a profound level of disillusion among Quebeckers. Little more than a year after winning the Québec provincial popular vote, Charest found himself ranked behind both Bouchard and Mario Dumont in public approval and esteem. There are multiple dimensions to Charest’s problems:

  • The Liberals are divided. Attempting to balance both Anglophone federalists and Francophone nationalists is devilishly difficult. Charest hasn’t developed the touch to avoid falling between these stools. The effort makes for mushy compromises irritating both factions and lacking bite in responding to the government. 
  • It is hard being opposition leader. The government holds almost all of the cards in its ability to announce programs, manipulate information, command media attention, and ultimately to call an election. And if times are good, it is harder to criticize the government without appearing feckless in criticism or saying “me too, but more so.” That said, Charest has not handled his role as opposition leader particularly well. He was absent when the PQ mishandled reports of massive health care funds being held in Toronto banks. He has fumbled reactions to the federal Liberals’ Clarity Bill and been unable to develop either a position uniquely opposed or coincident with Bill 99 (the PQ’s riposte to the federal “Clarity Bill”). 
  • The fumbling has led to the perception that he isn’t intellectually up to the job. This “gravitas” problem may be a bum rap. World class intellect doesn’t mean world class leadership. Still, Charest has never had the reputation of an intellectual heavyweight and Québeckers pay some attention to intellectual heft, e.g., Bouchard, Parizeau, Daniel Johnson, and Trudeau. Charest’s great strength is his passionate commitment to federalism, and if federalism/referendum is not in the forefront of public discussion, he risks appearing as “Jean one-note.” 
  • Charest doesn’t really want to be in Québec. It doesn’t matter whether he masters his briefs, he just isn’t interested in water treatment facilities in Chicoutimi or emergency room nurses at Dorval. Charest has repeatedly left the impression with observers that what he really wanted in life was to be prime minister of Canada and that he misses “politics” in Ottawa. Québeckers are willing to admit that this is a worthy, even noble, objective; but it is not their view of an appropriate objective for a provincial Québec politician. His reluctance to be drafted into a savior role was palatable; the disappointment in his failing to meet expectations was profound, both for him personally and for those who had set aside their own ambitions for Liberal leadership.

There are some positives. One retired Liberal member of the National Assembly, previously critical of Charest, believes that he is doing better. Other observers suggest that he has improved his ability to reach beyond his inner circle of federal Tory colleagues and is learning how to be both a provincial and a Liberal politician. Indeed, he has campaigned hard for a strong Liberal party endorsement at their party congress in October. He also has the strength of perceived weakness. There is no obvious alternative to Charest or that individual would have been made party leader in 1998. Moreover, deposing him would likely be politically messy and simultaneously deprive federalists of their strongest, most passionate proponent for Canadian unity.

Nevertheless, there is an old saying that you have only one chance to make a first impression. It is complemented by the more hopeful observation that overcoming a bad first impression is possible, but takes time. Unfortunately, Charest not only seems to have made a bad first impression, but subsequent experience seems to have reinforced that judgment with the audience he most needs to convert: nationalistic Francophones.

The mystery of Mario

Mario Dumont is the oldest thirty year old in Canada. Or so goes the observation about the leader of the Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ). He seems to have been prominent in Québec politics since birth. In two elections, Dumont has moved from political oddity to political institution without creating a defining impression. Nevertheless, the ADQ continues to generate the sense that it is a parking lot rather than a party. Certainly, Dumont is not an aparatnik. He is not spending day and night at the grassroots in the classic party-building role: organize, organize, organize. And when you have finished that objective, organize some more. So while some predict that Dumont will be joined by other ADQ members of the National Assembly following the next election, it remains impossible to envision him in the role of prime minister or even opposition leader.

That said, Dumont is hardly irrelevant in Québec politics. Indeed, the vested wisdom contends that as long as his support remains over ten percent, he will attract sufficient Francophone votes to prevent Charest/Liberals from winning an election. Thus the wry contending observations: (a) Bouchard should do anything necessary to keep Dumont happy in his role as gadfly third echelon opposition, e.g., bigger office, more visibility in Question Period; while (b) the Liberals should do anything necessary to get Dumont out of politics, e.g., a lucrative bank directorship. The third possibility, that the PQ could co-opt Dumont with an offer of a ministerial portfolio seems less likely, both because Dumont’s supporters do not appear transferable to the PQ and his “fit” with the PQ does not appear good on any level.

Nevertheless, the question remains about what motivates ADQ supporters. And for the moment, it must remain unresolved. Polls suggest ADQ’ers would split roughly fifty-fifty between sovereignists and federalists in another referendum. There are indications that young professionals find the ADQ’s more conservative economic platform attractive (some suggest that the ADQ is the provincial “Tory” party ideologically). Others find the ADQ a convenient “parking” place for those tired of the “same old, same old” themes from PQ and Liberals, wanting neither to encourage Bouchard to hold another referendum nor to reward Charest with an unearned mandate.




. . . but some local politics are national.

Federal politics impinge on the Québec scene. Political chronology and Prime Minister Chretien’s statements indicate a national federal election either in fall 2000 or spring 2001. The recent leadership dances in the CA and the Liberals also generate some interesting scenarios and judgments.





Prime Minister Jean Chretien files papers away in his coat pocket after addressing the media during a Liberal Party campaign stop in Barrie, Ontario, October 30, 2000. Chretien, whom many are calling arrogant for calling a federal election just three and a half years into his mandate, is campaigning to be re-elected for his third consecutive term as Canadian Prime Minister.

Photo by Andrew Wallace (Reuters)

  • The Tories are dead. At least in Québec, the long death dive of the Parti Québecois (PC) is finally about to crater in. The seats that Charest coattailed into Ottawa from Québec in 1997 will not survive his departure from the Tory leadership. That circumstance was foreshadowed when the Tories were unable even to hold Charest’s Sherbrooke riding after he resigned to lead the Québec Liberals. The party was even further weakened by the departure of key staff recruited to promote Tom Long’s CA leadership campaign, and in moves smacking of desperation, the Tory MP’s switched to the Liberal party hoping to save their political lives. Senior Bloc Québécois (BC) leadership is all but licking its lips over the prospects of gains from defeating these “born again” Liberals. 
  • The Bloc loves Chretien. Polls starting in late June showed the BQ leading the Liberals throughout Québec with slightly over forty percent backing; they have remained in that range. Experts conclude that the figure indicates the Bloc is preferred by upwards of sixty percent of Francophones and would translate into distinct gains in seats. However, such numbers are transient by definition and peculiarly dependent upon PM Chretien remaining as Liberal leader. Although the prime minister shows every indication of continuing as leader, should Finance Minister Paul Martin succeed Chretien, polls suggest BQ support could decline as much as fifteen percent with commensurate prospective MP losses in Ottawa. 
  • The Canadian Alliance has no footprint. Although ostensibly the CA’s proposals for greater provincial autonomy are attractive to nationalist Francophones and the new CA leader (Stockwell Day) has usable French, Québeckers still think of the CA as the old Reform garbage in a new dumpster albeit with a new garbage collector. Reform/CA is regarded as prejudiced against Québeckers and sympathetic to conservative social views, e.g., limits on abortion, support for the death penalty, and antipathy to homosexuals that Québeckers do not endorse. Moreover, Quebeckers already have a party at hand that defends Québec interests — the BQ. That said, a CA lashup with the BQ should the Liberals be forced into a minority government could be tactically interesting to both parties, although both currently deny such a possibility for obvious reasons.

Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day during an election rally in Panticton, B.C. October 28, 2000.

Photo by John Lehmann (Reuters)

Nevertheless, facing an election within a year, the BQ is confident of gains, perhaps taking Liberal seats as well as Tories. Recognizing that he ran a poor campaign in 1997, BQ leader Gilles Duceppe believes he has learned from the experience. He has ordered all sitting members to enlist 1,000 riding members and amass a $50,000 campaign war chest or he will not sign their nomination papers; he is prepared to prune some weak sisters. He anticipates strengthening his team with visible minorities and at least one prominent aboriginal candidate. Additionally, Parti Québécois organizers including premier Bouchard have promised to campaign vigorously for the Bloc. Provided Chretien seeks a third mandate, the Bloc has reasons for confidence.

Québec sovereignty: There is a time and tide . . .

The mood among Québec separatists is either irritated patience or resigned patience. This is not the time for another referendum. The polls say so; the anecdotal evidence repeats the point. The 1998 election said clearly, “We want Bouchard and the PQ, but not another referendum on sovereignty.” No one should confuse Lucien Bouchard with Don Quixote.

Consequently, Bouchard and the PQ have dropped the litany of creating “winning conditions.” The effort to determine such circumstances and the subsequent politicized focus on whether every action by the government was or was not a “winning condition” had become a sapping distraction from the pure mechanics of governing. Will the more generalized language for promoting sovereignty and the promise of an estates general on language issues in the autumn do more than placate hard core sovereignists and simultaneously irritate/frighten Anglophones? Probably not; separatist fires are certainly dampened down for the middle term.

St. Jean Baptiste and the evolution of Fête Nationale

One of the straws in the wind for gauging separatist sentiment has been Montreal’s St. Jean Baptiste celebrations. Following anti-Ottawa riots in 1968-1969, the formal St. Jean parades celebrated on 23 June were banned for the next twenty years. Upon their resumption and throughout the mid-1990’s, the Québec National Day was directed toward creating a mass event for Francophones along the lines of a May Day-style popular mobilization. There were masses of Québec flags and the parade of the people following the official array of floats and marchers was led by separatist politicians along the broad stretches of Sherbrooke Boulevard. In 1995 Bouchard — not fully recovered from an amputation — walked a major portion of the parade route with other separatist leaders. In 1998 Anglophone leader William Johnson was “egged” and removed from the parade by police when he attempted to join the march.

By 1999, however, the focus of the parade had changed. Now held in the early evening, it was routed through the cozy streets of the old city. Much shorter (this year it was only 30 minutes), it is clearly inclusive with participation by Mohawk Indians and an assortment of visible minority bands and marchers. Although there were Québec flags, their numbers were much reduced; the sidewalk audience was a placid assortment of the metropolitan area, mixing families and tourists. There were no marching politicians; all dignitaries were seated in front of the town hall.

It appears as if sovereignists have decided that they have accomplished all they can with mass rallies; those able to be bound to the cause have been so attached. Now their objective is to relieve angst, particularly among the growing numbers of Allophones, that separatists can govern without prejudice to non-Francophones. The inclusive nature of this year’s parade made it a positive community affair; the inclusivity, however, was also a useful, long term political device.

“Clarity” and Bill 99

By introducing Bill C-20 (the Clarity bill), PM Chretien gambled against the instincts and rejected the demurs of the majority of his Québec caucus. So far he has succeeded. Building on the provisions of the 1998 Supreme Court decision, the bill sets up a complex but largely undefined pathway through which Québec might obtain independence from Canada. When Parliament recessed this summer, it had been passed by the House after strenuous (albeit predictable) objections by the Bloc and by the Senate after essentially procedural criticisms.

The core of “Clarity” is that any referendum question posed to Quebeckers must be “clear” (and neither the 1980 nor the 1995 questions are acceptable). But exactly what question is clear would have to be determined by the House of Commons. Coincidentally, the question would have to be passed by a “clear” majority of Quebeckers, a figure greater than fifty percent plus one vote, but undefined. After a vote, Commons would determine whether the majority was “clear.”

Initially, many sovereignists, media, and political observers believed that Quebeckers would be incensed by federal efforts to manage retrospectively a political process previously under provincial control. They anticipated substantial popular protest or, at a minimum, sharp drops in support for the Liberals. This reaction did not occur and the sovereignists have been forced into backpedaling explanations.

Making lemonade

In the classic approach to such disappointments, senior sovereignists have professed not to be disappointed at all. One senior BQ MP said that he never expected a significant popular reaction to “Clarity” as Ottawa had adroitly presented it as a technical/legal adjustment, and Quebeckers agreed that propositions should be “clear.”

Another senior BQ leader said that the Clarity Bill would turn into a major problem for Ottawa. He hypothesized that extended debate over whether a question was sufficiently clear would benefit sovereignists. A clear question need not be the preferred Liberal bludgeon “Do you want Québec to separate from Canada?” Rather a hypothetical question such as “Should Québec declare sovereignty following consultations with Canada along the lines of the 1998 Supreme Court decision” should be satisfactory.

For such committed sovereignists, the Clarity Bill is akin to money in the bank. Just as the 1982 patriation of the Canadian constitution from the UK stimulated more intense charges of “humiliation” in the 1990’s than at the time, Pequistes believe that Quebeckers will ultimately be hostile to Ottawa’s strictures controlling a sovereignty referendum.

The Bill 99 riposte

In response to the Clarity Bill, the PQ government introduced (and then revised and reintroduced) a Québec response. Essentially, Bill 99 says in reply to the federal “Clarity” rules and procedures that Quebeckers will determine their own political fate. However, Pequiste efforts to secure Liberal support for a unanimous National Assembly response to Clarity failed (and senior Bloc officials are quietly critical of this failure).

Observers anticipate that Bill 99 ultimately will be approved by the National Assembly in response to final passage of the Clarity Bill in Ottawa. Committed Québec federalists contend that Bill 99 is unconstitutional when compared with the 1998 Supreme Court decision and resolve to test it immediately in the courts. Equally knowledgeable sovereignists believe that it is constitutional (or at least mostly so). Another round of legal confrontation looms.

Is the dog sleeping or is it dead?

By most assessments, the Clarity Bill was a major challenge to Québec separatists; it was designed as such by PM Chretien as part of his legacy to Canada. One might equate it to putting a cattle prod to a sleeping dog. But there has been no immediate reaction. Thus the question, “Is the dog dead?”

One senior sovereignist offered a biting critique of current PQ/BQ activity, “They are praying something will turn up so they can hold a referendum.” The current course, however, is simply playing for time. Jean-Francois Lisée in his recent book, Emergency Exit, proposed a series of referendums to secure specific powers for Québec followed by negotiations with Ottawa. If Ottawa refused to negotiate productively, Québec would be justified in seeking sovereignty. Lisée says that having made this argument from his advisory position close to Bouchard (and having it rejected), he left government convinced that the Pequistes had no plan to advance toward sovereignty. Lisée’s departure is not unique; other comparably focused Pequistes have also left government.

Lisée offers an extended analogy. Québec is akin not to an abused, but a “disrespected” wife of Canada. The relationship is not working and the wife would like to leave, but believes that the “judge” will not let her depart. Having tried twice to leave, the wife is now apathetic; the Clarity Bill reinforces the apathy. She doesn’t even want to try to leave (i.e., have another referendum). If, however, the wife truly believed that she could leave, she would. To buttress this conclusion, Lisée noted polls immediately after the 1995 referendum to the effect that citizens would have given “yes” a majority had they known that they were so close to winning. Nevertheless, the separatists have lost momentum. Ottawa has increased its visual/physical presence in Québec, sponsoring high profile events and providing heavy funding for federalist-oriented celebrations such as Canada Day. At this point, the tide is running in Ottawa’s favor.


I see no referendum for the rest of Bouchard’s current mandate. While the Liberals and ADQ will press for a specific commitment in this regard, the Pequistes will refuse, essentially for tactical reasons. One sovereignist parliamentarian recalled that Bouchard had promised to spend the first half of his mandate governing and the second half discussing sovereignty. Hence, he predicted there would be more “sound,” if not more action over the next two years. Activity around the estates general on language will sound such a note. Thus the objective appears to be winning another mandate in 2002 and then preparing for a last chance at sovereignty. Don’t bet that the dog is dead.

For U.S. diplomacy, it is a time of respite. When asked, we repeatedly have made clear our preference for Canadian unity. No one with a third grade education can doubt our desire for a peaceful, unified Canada and a continued bilateral relationship along the lines developed for more than a century. We have and will continue to avoid speculation of the “what if?” nature; hypotheticals on Québec independence are not helpful, and if hypotheticals ever become realities, we will meet them on the day thereof.  

*David T. Jone earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and pursued further graduate studies, all at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written extensively over the years for U.S. and Canadian publications.

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