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Obstacles to Independence in Quebec

If the PQ wins the Quebec election, the party will face serious international challenges to holding a referendum, argues Kyle Matthews.

By: /
1 April, 2014
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

The Quebec provincial election has re-awoken deep-seated fears across Canada that another referendum might soon be on our doorstep.

The possibility that Pauline Marois and the Parti Quebecois (PQ) will be elected to a majority government on 7 April is far from a given; recent polls indicate that the Liberal Party of Quebec, led by Philippe Couillard, is currently pulling ahead by a wide margin.

Nevertheless, in the case of a PQ majority, Canadians both inside and outside of Quebec would do well to consider several international challenges that will profoundly impact, if not contain or restrict, the PQ’s ultimate quest to make Quebec a sovereign country.

The most obvious challenge is the upcoming referendum on independence in Scotland scheduled to take place on 18 September of this year. Unlike the two past Quebec referendums (in 1980 and 1995) where the PQ posed obfuscating questions to the citizens of the province, the Scots will be posing a remarkably clear question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ 

During this election, Philippe Couillard challenged Pauline Marois to promise Quebeckers that she would pose a straightforward question like the one agreed to between the Scottish Parliament and London if a third referendum on Quebec independence were ever to come to pass. She refused to comment. 

The Scottish referendum question (saying nothing of Canada’s Clarity Act) will impose limitations on the liberty of obfuscation employed by the PQ in the past.

Another key challenge being exposed by Scotland’s planned referendum is that very few national governments or supranational bodies such as the European Union appear to be excited about separatism as an international norm.  The PQ will find many states in the European Union—where the impulse in the post-WWII era has been to build and foster political and economic unions, not break them—to be less than enthusiastic about its secessionist project.

The other international elephant in the room is how Washington would react to Quebec’s third referendum in less than fifty years. Recently, former U.S. President Bill Clinton released documents from his personal library that highlighted in 1995 that Washington had some reservations about immediately recognizing Quebec in the wake of referendum victory or of guaranteeing it would automatically be included in the North America Free Trade Agreement. “The ties between our two countries have been carefully cultivated and we should not take for granted that a new entity would have exactly the same kind of ties” was the message imparted as official speaking notes. It would be naïve to believe Washington’s future policy regarding another Quebec referendum campaign would be any different. Now that it has been made public, it is much more difficult to ignore.

But looking to the future, potentially the most freighting international challenge to Quebec’s independence movement could be France. Rumours have been swirling for some time that former President Nicholas Sarkozy will attempt to unseat the deeply unpopular François Hollande in the next presidential election in 2017.

The PQ has always operated under the assumption that Paris would automatically and without reservation be the first member of the UN Security Council to recognize Quebec as an independent country, even if the referendum was won by a simple majority of one vote. 

However, Sarkozy is no De Gaulle and no friend of the PQ’s brand of identity politics. In 2009 he angered Quebec sovereigntists when he stated, “those who do not understand that, I don’t think they have understood the message of the Francophonie, the universal values we hold in Quebec as in France—the rejection of bigotry, the rejection of division, the rejection of self-confinement, the refusal to define one’s identity through fierce opposition to another.”

The PQ will need a lot of luck in the next week to win the Quebec election. Even should the party win, however, it will face many international challenges that will restrict its ability to achieve its ultimate goal of independence for Quebec.

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