Quebec Votes·Analysis

Quebec sovereignty talk masks an inconvenient truth

Parti Québécois leaders tend to avoid talking about Quebec independence too much to broad public audiences during election campaigns.

Pauline Marois's predictions of hassle-free borders, shared Canadian currency unlikely

Parti Québécois Leader Pauline Marois speaks during a news conference at a metal training school in Montreal on Friday. (Ryan Remiorz/ Canadian Press)

Parti Québécois leaders tend to avoid talking about Quebec independence too much to broad public audiences during election campaigns.

And there is a very rational reason for that: most Quebecers know how they feel about it.

The PQ knows it is largely futile in an election to try wooing the votes it doesn't already have with an argument for sovereignty which most non-PQ voters don't agree with.

And, as every Parti Québécois leader is quick to say when asked: "This is an election campaign, not a referendum campaign."

Electoral logic dictates it is wiser to attract votes by sticking to Main Street issues such as the economy, health care, and schools. Intense sovereignty talk is largely reserved as a crowd-pleaser at partisan rallies.

However, PQ Leader Pauline Marois broke with that typical way of doing things on Tuesday, when she predicted that "people would be able to travel freely through Quebec, and Quebecers would continue to be able to visit the Maritimes and British Columbia," insisting there would be no border checks if Quebec were to separate from Canada.

Retain Canadian currency

Then, Marois went on to say Wednesday that an independent Quebec would retain the Canadian dollar as its currency, and would have a seat on the board of the Bank of Canada.

The arrival of star PQ candidate Pierre Karl Péladeau on the scene, and his rallying cry to turn Quebec into a country for his children, seemed to invigorate something in the party and its supporters. The fact that Marois has been willing to address specifics about how the whole thing would go down may have, at its heart, a purpose other than selling the grand vision of sovereignty. 

One of the aspects about sovereignty that makes it so difficult to sell, even to strong Quebec nationalists, is the list of unknowns. Uncertainty, after all, makes both individuals and market forces (i.e. jobs) very nervous.

For example, there is no legal or political road map for what would in fact happen after a Yes vote.

Even after a very decisive result on a very clear question, there is no saying what would happen.

Some legal scholars have suggested that should the Supreme Court of Canada be asked to rule on the referendum result, it would simply return it to the political arena to be sorted out.

And even if Ottawa was willing to negotiate the terms of some kind of devolution agreement, it seems improbable such a move could happen without adequate support from other provinces.

So, barring some kind of diplomatic miracle, one can't help but have doubts about the likelihood of a peaceful and painless transition.

Marois was hounded by federalists for years after making a vague admission that a vote for separation would trigger five years of disruption. 

Making public predictions about what life would be like once Quebec's independence is attained allows the proponents of that option to conveniently skip over all the pain in between.

Not to mention the fact that it wouldn't even be up to the PQ to decide on borders, currency or any other contemporary matters concerning the future independent country of Quebec. It would be the future national governments of Canada and Quebec who would have to work it all out through bilateral negotiations.


Tim Duboyce was a news editor at CBC Montreal. He was CBC's correspondent at the Quebec National Assembly from 2003 to 2013, and has covered five Quebec provincial election campaigns.