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Quebec Election Looms but a Traditional Issue Doesn’t: Independence

Category: Americas,World

MONTREAL — Rosalie Pelchat is typical of the younger generation of Quebecers here. She switches effortlessly from French to English. She spends hours each day surfing Facebook or watching Netflix in the language of Shakespeare.

And, like many of her generation, she is uninterested in fighting for an independent Quebec.

“We don’t feel the same insecurity about language as our parents’ generation did,” Ms. Pelchat, a 17-year-old science student, said in the cafeteria at Collège de Maisonneuve, a Francophone college. “We are better off economically in Canada and open to the world. Talk of independence is a total turnoff.”

As Quebecers prepare to go to the polls on Oct. 1 in provincial elections, the polarizing issue of whether the province should secede from Canada has been sidelined for the first time in decades. It underscores how the culture wars of the past have shifted in this Francophone province where language and culture are deeply bound up with identity.

Instead of focusing on Quebec’s independence, the campaign has been dominated by talk of education, health care and, especially, immigration. The center-right party is trying to appeal to Quebecers by proposing that the province’s autonomy be preserved by limiting immigration and imposing a “values test” and a “French language test” on newcomers.

Independence movements have spread across the world, from Kurdistan to Catalonia to the Balkans, in recent years. But in Quebec, globalization, prosperity and stringent laws protecting local language and culture have helped tame the quest for national sovereignty.

Even the nationalist, independence-seeking Parti Québécois has vowed that it would not hold a referendum on independence until after 2022, a tacit acknowledgment that the subject, at least for now, is not a vote winner.

The party is third in the polls, well behind the governing Liberal Party, which is running neck and neck with the center-right Coalition Avenir Québec led by François Legault, a businessman and once ardent proponent of independence who has since abandoned that goal.

“Today’s young people are confident, capitalist, federalist in outlook and want to travel,” said Jean-Marc Léger, the president of Léger, a leading Canadian market research firm. Brought up in a borderless world of Twitter and Snapchat, “they aren’t interested in the battles for independence that the baby boom generation fought for and lost.”

For the younger generation, aspirations of becoming a Québécois Bill Gates appear to have pushed the constitutional preoccupations of the past to the background.

In a more than two-hour debate among party leaders this month, the independence issue barely registered while the leaders clashed over Mr. Legault’s proposals to expel immigrants who fail to pass a French language test after three years in the province.

François Cardinal, a veteran commentator on Quebec political affairs, who is also head of the editorial section at La Presse, Canada’s leading French-language newspaper, said it was the first time in 40 years that the question of Quebec’s independence was a nonissue in a provincial election. The failure of the independence movement in two separate referendums, in 1980 and 1995, he noted, had chastened independence-seekers.

“If you look at what is happening in Spain, we see powers being stripped away from Catalonia, whereas in Quebec, the province has mastered more and more areas of decision-making,” Mr. Cardinal said. “The fight for independence is no longer seen as worth fighting for.”

It is hard to overstate how far attitudes in Quebec have changed.

The province was ceded to Britain in the 18th century, but Francophones can trace their roots to 17th-century French settlers who sailed up the St. Lawrence River. During the heady years of the 1970s and early 1980s, Quebec was bubbling with agitation for independence. In those years, Francophones who spoke French in public could still be heckled with “Speak white!” or English.

But the balance of power gradually shifted after the governing Parti Québécois passed Bill 101 in 1977, a measure requiring that French be the language of government, the courts and commerce. Fearful that the country could be ripped apart, dozens of companies, including the Bank of Montreal, moved their headquarters to Toronto.

The first referendum on whether Quebec should secede from Canada was in 1980; the “no” side won by nearly 20 percentage points. Then, in 1995, Quebecers voted by a tiny majority, 50.58 percent, to remain in Canada.

By that time, Bill 101 had been in force for nearly 20 years. Though the law may have unnerved many investors, it engendered feelings of cultural confidence, Mr. Léger said, making many Quebecers feel more secure living in English-majority Canada.

The drive for independence has also been subdued by Quebec’s relatively resilient economy. Unemployment is less than 6 percent. And Quebec is a net recipient of billions of dollars in transfer payments from the federal government that help pay for public programs and services, a source of irritation to other, richer provinces.

Still, however much the issue has faded from the debate, secession is supported by a vocal minority.

Jean-Martin Aussant, a candidate for Parti Québécois, said his party was preparing the ground for another referendum on the issue, which he argued would help generate more enthusiasm for the cause.

If an independent Quebec was able to keep the nearly $60 billion in taxes it sent each year to the federal government, he contended, Quebecers would, on the whole, be better off.

“Canada has far more cultural similarities with the United States than Quebec has with Canada,” he said in fluent English. “But Canada wouldn’t want to merge with the U.S. and have the U.S. decide its destiny. In the same manner, we don’t want Quebec to be subordinate to Canada.”

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, 28, is the co-spokesman for Quebec Solidaire, a left-wing party that favors independence. He said his party’s progressive agenda cannot be accomplished as long as Canada is a constitutional monarchy and decisions on Quebec’s future are made in Ottawa.

“Look at NAFTA negotiations: We have to beg Justin Trudeau, who’s in thrall to big business, to keep Quebec’s interests in mind on agriculture and environment,” he said. “We could better safeguard Quebec’s interests if we were independent and had our own seat at the table.”

But even those seeking independence acknowledge that independence-seekers are faltering.

Mélissa Gélinas, 32, a postdoctoral student in Indigenous studies at Montreal’s Concordia University, studied in Britain and Toronto, loves Margaret Atwood and prides herself on speaking excellent English. She also dreams of an independent Quebec.

“We are a nation of Francophones in North America that can function quite well on its own,” she explained before quickly adding: “Realistically, I don’t think it will happen.”


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