PQ fights to keep the faith in an election that's not about sovereignty

For the first time in decades, a referendum on Quebec independence is not a central issue in the provincial election campaign.

For first time decades, a referendum on independence is not front and centre in a Quebec election campaign

Even with a referendum on hold until at least 2022, PQ supporters proudly display their nationalist colours at a rally in Sherbrooke, Que., on Aug. 29, 2018 (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

At a golf club in Trois-Rivières, a man with an acoustic guitar performs for about 200 Parti Québécois faithful. His hair is grey — like that of most people in the room.

The song is Felix Leclerc's nationalist hymn Le tour de l'Île — an ode to L'Île d'Orléans, where Jacques Cartier landed in 1535 and where Leclerc lived until his death in 1988.

To cope with what's difficult and what's useless

There's the tour of an island

42 miles of tranquility…

PQ Leader Jean-François Lisée listens from the front row. He's on a tour of his own.

Sainte-Sophie, Laval, Longueuil, Joliette, Trois-Rivières, Quebec City, Sherbrooke: seven venues in seven nights

PQ supporters pack a community centre in Laval, Que., for a speech by leader Jean-François Lisée on Aug. 24, 2018. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

He's also coping with what's difficult — attempting to climb out of third place in the polls and into contention with the CAQ's François Legault and the Liberals' Philippe Couillard.

No referendum talk

The rallies clearly energize the leader and his base alike, especially when Lisée touches on themes of language and sovereignty.

But while the spirit here may be willing, the polling is weak when it comes to the question of Quebec independence, and the party knows it.

"We decided together as the Parti Québécois," said Lisée at another gathering, this time in Sherbrooke, "in a major gesture of clarity, humility and an acknowledgement of public opinion that we would not hold a referendum in a first mandate."

That decision hasn't pleased everyone.

Luc Bordeleau isn’t optimistic that pro-independence parties like the PQ will win many seats in the 2018 election. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

"I think it's sad," said Luc Bordeleau, 61, who has been a sovereignist since he was six. "For me, independence should be a transversal theme for all the problems that we are living now."

Bordeleau worries that by putting a referendum on the backburner, people will begin to lose interest.

He also thinks the PQ's days as the main standard bearer of Quebec independence may be numbered.

"It's curious that I say that here in a meeting of Parti Québécois, but maybe it will be other people like people of Québec Solidaire who will give a new life to the idea."

Bordeleau thinks the real solution would be a coalition between the pro-independence parties — a proposition Québec Solidaire rebuffed in 2017.

But while others may be as impatient as Bordeleau to lay the groundwork for a third referendum, they're more sanguine about the party's current electoral strategy.

‘We have a movement. We feel something,’ says Olivier Lelièvre of Saint-Lambert, Que., left. ‘We can win.’ (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

"At first sight, I was against this idea, honestly," said Olivier Lelièvre, 34, of Saint-Lambert. "But we understand that the people are not ready for this step."

Lelièvre says the PQ first has to prove to Quebecers it can be an honest government and then start pushing the national question in earnest.

He blames the lack of support for sovereignty on 15 years of near-uninterrupted Liberal rule.

"Just do the same exercise with 15 years of PQ at the government, and you will have something different," he said. "Just give us the chance."

Allophones lukewarm

One demographic group that has not given the PQ much of a chance has been new Quebecers.

Polls have shown so-called allophones have traditionally backed the Liberal Party by overwhelming margins.

Maria Ashley Demets, right, and her sister Maria Isabelle attend a rally in Sainte-Sophie, Que., to support PQ candidate Marc Bourcier who is helping their grandfather get a travel visa from Panama. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

"I think the Parti Québécois is a great, great party. But they have to involve a bit more immigrants," says Maria Ashley Demets, who moved with her family from Panama when she was four.

The 25-year-old says she'd like to see the party update its image to be more "tolerant."

While she doesn't think sovereignty is the most pressing issue facing the province, she says she'd be open to the idea some day.

"We came from a country that, first, it was a province," she said, referring to Panama's secession from Colombia in 1903.

"It's possible, but we have to work hard, just to preserve our culture, our language."

PQ campaign rallies often feature musical performances like this one in Trois-Rivières. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The hour is not at hand

In Trois-Rivières there are more than a few watery eyes in the room as the guitarman heads towards the final lines of Le tour de l'Île.

The fruit is ripe

In the orchards of my country

It means the hour has come

If you understand me.

The lines were written by Leclerc in 1976 — a time when the fruit of Quebec nationalism was ripe, as Réné Lévesque led the PQ to its first majority government.

Things have changed. Most here understand the hour of independence is no longer at hand.

But while their party may have hit the snooze button on a referendum, they still have faith.

Gilles Comtois has been carrying the torch since the 1970s and has no plans of dropping it now.

"It might be long, but we have to believe."

Watch: PQ supporters on the party's decision to put off an independence vote

Our reporter, Simon Nakonechny, shows the people and places on the PQ's campaign trail. 6:05

About the Author

Simon Nakonechny is a videojournalist at CBC News Montreal.


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