Quebec’s general election next week is likely to return the Parti Québécois. The last time the PQ moved from opposition to government, they launched a referendum that nearly broke the country apart. Some are comforted by the fact that the Oui forces in 1995 were led by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, and if he couldn’t do it, then there is nothing to worry about the far less magnetic Pauline Marois, right? Let’s discuss what might be a very real possibility of Quebec separating from Canada.
Some polls suggest 40 percent or more of Quebecers are ready to vote in favour of sovereignty. That's a baseline level.
The question is, what would it take to push that number above 50 percent. Here, I suggest the answer is: Not much. If some discount Pauline Marois as unengaging, then “not much” means she still can guide a wave of support for sovereignty right through that 50 percent mark. But it may be less about what passions the PQ flares up. What might potentially unglue Quebec from Canada is the total lack of engagement Quebeckers have with the Canadian government.
Let me illustrate with some data.
The Ipsos Reid 2011 federal election “exit poll” contains the following survey item: “I want Quebec to become sovereign, that is, no longer part of the Canadian federation? “ Around 40 percent overall agreed with this “hard” version of a sovereignty question. Furthermore, support among French-speaking respondents was 45 percent, and it is fluctuations among francophones that will determine the next referendum, given that non-francophones are more likely to remain stable in their opposition to sovereignty. Therefore, from this point on, all analysis and commentary here relate to francophone Quebec respondents of the survey.
Among francophones, then, what positions juxtaposed against "standard" federal government positions relate with greater levels of support for sovereignty?
One obvious start is the leadership style in Ottawa. The current federal government’s “hands off” approach to just about everything is based on a very classical small-c conservative view of refraining from intervening in too many areas. But it also means the federal government means less to Quebecers. Based on a survey question that asked respondents whether they thought the federal government had any impact on their lives, the more one feels disconnected, the greater the support for sovereignty. As shown in the table below, among those francophones who perceive little or no impact, support for sovereignty approaches 60 to 70 percent.
It may seem obvious to expect sovereignists to feel alienated from the federal government, but there are good reasons to suggest a less interventionist style from Ottawa may do more harm that good for Quebec's relationship with Canada. Quebeckers are generally more inclined to accept government intervention as a norm, not a necessary evil to be exercised ever so rarely. If the federal government is seen as more distant, less involved, then Quebeckers will naturally look more to Quebec City as its sole centre of political and national meaning.
Perhaps there is a lack of inspirational leaders in Ottawa, and this may explain the “orange wave” that led the NDP to sweep Quebec. While there is no data in the Ipsos survey that taps into perceptions of current NDP leader Thomas Mulcair, support for sovereignty rises with the perception that Ottawa needs a fresh new generation of leaders, as shown in the next table.
There is an obvious lack of that "vision thing" in Ottawa, and that makes federal political life less interesting. That may matter little to the politically engaged, but to the rest of the population, it leaves little to attract. Without a “pull” from Ottawa, Quebeckers, even under Marois, would have an easier time supporting the vision of a Quebec country.
More tables could be produced, such as those that connect views about same-sex marriage, the environment, gun control and capital punishment to support for sovereignty. (For your own analysis, access the data at LISPOP`s Data Portal.) We typically see the same thing: Sovereignty is higher among those who support access to abortions, oppose capital punishment, are in favour of same-sex marriage, and so on. However, none of these correlations assume causality. There is nothing to suggest one's support for any issue automatically leads to support for a separate Quebec. But if more and more Quebeckers feel estranged from the federal government, if more see nothing inspirational in Ottawa's leadership, and if more see their issue positions at odds with standard party lines on the government benches, then there is little there to resist the sovereignist message from offering itself as an appealing alternative.