The Broken Dream of Rene Levesque

An unprecedented electoral disaster for Quebec’s pro-independence Parti Quebecois this week. The governing party of the Canadian province had called early elections in hopes of getting a stronger majority, on the strength of a new anti-immigrant program it called a Charter of Quebec Values. Instead of returning the PQ to power, voters deserted in droves to the anti-independence Liberal party, in spite of a vast corruption scandal that continues to wrack the liberals. In this letter to his fellow ‘sovereignists,’ lifelong independence activist Simon DeLorme writes that the party’s abrupt tack to the right was a terrible and perhaps irreversible mistake, that by trampling on the francophone immigrants who are its future, the party may have written its own death sentence.

The worst popular-vote outcome since 1970. The worst outcome in terms of assembly seats since 1976. The first prime minister in the history of Quebec-despite her talents as a politician- to lose her own seat. A quarter of the cabinet wiped out as well, including such heavyweights as the Minister of Education, Immigration, Environment, and even Justice. A good half a dozen important bastions fallen into the hands of the federalists, with the sovereignists coming in a distant second, or even in third place. Among the survivors, their comfortable majorities have often melted like snow under the sun. Voters have fled in all directions, not only to the left and Quebec Solidaire, or to the right and Coalition Avenir Quebec, but even directly to the Liberal party, without even a ‘stopover’ somewhere in between. This despite the profound corruption alleged to be rotting the heart of the Liberal party, and its failure to clean house after only 18 months in opposition.

My dear friends in the Parti Quebecois, do you get the message? You must. It is the very existence of the PQ that is in the balance. Its survival. If the party does not reform, it will die. If the party does not change, the next election will be a fundamental realignment, and the PQ will share the fate of the defunct Union Nationale. Those who have been invoking the name of Rene Levesque since yesterday might well remember the man’s own words, and reflect on the meaning of the expression ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’:

“For me, any political party is nothing but a necessary evil, one of these instruments that a democratic society has need of when it delegates its collective interests to elected officials. But political parties that end up lasting for a long time generally age badly. They have a tendency to transform into something like secular churches, into frankly unbearable institutions that claim to have the only path to salvation. In the long term, ideas congeal and stiffen, and are replaced by petty political opportunism . Every new party should, I think, write into its statutes a clause for its own dissolution after a certain period. A generation? Not much more; after that, the plastic surgeries that try to restore some semblance of beauty will accomplish little, and the party will one day find itself a decrepit thing that is accomplishing nothing but blocking the electoral landscape, preventing the future from arriving.”

I have belonged to the clan of sovereignists since I was a teenager. I have always, from near or far, supported the Parti Quebecois. I have always felt at home there. Until this year. This year was too much. And believe me, I am not one of these delicate flowers who must turn their face away at the slightest compromise or the least tactical retreat. I understand the necessity for accommodation in parliamentary politics, and the heavy responsibilities that weigh on a governing party, which frequently demand sacrifices. When my mind is made up (which it has been for many years), it takes a lot to change it. But this year, the dam has burst. There are limits to what I can take. And a simple glance at yesterday’s results should be enough to show that I am not the only one to find myself at such a pass.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, did not leave the Parti Quebecois; the Party left me. You will never see me cheerleading for another party. In spite of all the anger and profound disappointment I feel toward the PQ, I do not wish death upon it, above all no long death that would injure not only the sovereignist movement, but the whole Quebec nation. The very real possibility of death is not something I can entirely accept, because the mission of the Parti Quebecois has still not been fulfilled. This year I have placed my vote elsewhere, not because I have suddenly been converted to the virtues of some rival party, but rather because of distress and disappointment. I have placed myself on the reserve lists for the Republic, as our [French] cousins say. And from the furthest depths of my heart, I hope that the signal will be heard, that something will be done to heal the wounds which have afflicted the party these last two decades. If not, if this present defeat is not stinging enough to impose a sense of urgency on the leadership of the Parti Quebecois, better then to simply unplug the life support and move on to something new. Because otherwise the voters will do it for us in 2018, and it will not be pretty.

Having always been a part of this great political clan, I am accustomed to losing elections. Every time is a blow that difficult blow to absorb. A punch that leaves the stomach clenched in knots. And this time once again, accepting the new configuration of the national assembly tears my heart out, leaves me desperate. But right up until this year I have always clung to the idealism that the rich progressive [in every sense of the term]history of the Parti Quebecois inspires in me. Now, this inspiration has died. Being above all a pragmatist, I can acknowledge that it is not impossible that I will one day return to the fold. But before I can do that, things must change. Deeply. I have no grocery list, no plan of action, no ready solutions. Not yet. We must take a long moment to reflect and digest yesterday’s outcome. But one thing is certain: for the Parti Quebecois, the status quo would be a death sentence.

Yes, the Charter. That indeed was a heavy weight. Not so much for its content (on which a vast majority of Quebecois would agree, with the exception of the arrangements regarding religious symbols), as for the perhaps irreparable harm it has caused for the tenor of our public debate, and above all for relations with minority groups. These are minorities with who we must be building relationships rather than burning bridges. To put it in simple terms, you do not attract flies with vinegar, but with honey. Rightly or wrongly, minorities saw the Charter as a frontal attack upon them. We will obtain our independence with the help of our minorities, not in spite of them. To throw this fragile and important relationship into the garbage in the hopes of winning a single election, even a majority government, is irresponsible as well as counterproductive. If, in order to put the Parti Quebecois back in office, we must undermine the very possibility of a real voting majority in favor of independence, what is the point? The impulse to win elections is natural, but it should never make us lose sight of the ultimate goal.

An utter absence of rational arguments in its favor, or evidence for its necessity accompanied the Charter. A nauseating rhetoric. It liberated the most repulsive tongues. This Charter, this is not the Parti Quebecois that I have known. This is not the party of Levesque, not the party of Parizeau, not the party of Bouchard or the party of Landry. Not for nothing that all of these last three [Levesque died in 1987], warned the present leadership of the party that this debate would harm the party. Say what you want about nosy old mothers-in-law, but today they were proven right. There is a way, and the PQ has shown it in the past, to uphold a civic ideal of nationhood and protect the French language and the culture of Quebec, all while avoiding the noisome waters in which Bernard Drainville has plunged us, for reasons which are still entirely inexplicable.

The question of sovereignty surely played a role yesterday as well. We can certainly blame Phillipe Couillard for his fearmongering about a new referendum (rightly, it was as if we were in 1980 again!) but when the PQ reacts by throwing out the baby with the bathwater (there will be no referendum!), that simply ends up chilling the enthusiasm of the party’s most ardent independence activists. If the choice is between one centrist party which will not launch a referendum, and another centrist party which will not launch a referendum, one begins to see why the motivation to join the voting lines was so weak. There are other issues (environment, energy, public services), where the differences between the principal political parties have become so tenuous that for those who find these issue important went elsewhere, or simply stayed at home. All of these factors together contributed to a voting turnout that was somewhat less than in 2012, and a drop is never a good sign for the Parti Quebecois.

Our largely two-party electoral system is such that Quebeckers ended up voting for a party which the vast majority of them consider corrupt to its marrow. Do not be offended: this says a lot more about the Parti Quebecois as an alternative than it says about Quebeckers. I well understand the impulse to look for scapegoats (parties like the QS, the CAQ and the PLQ, or the media, or immigrants, or students, or Ontario, Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair, Justin Trudeau, or the weather, general well being, indifference), but you must try to resist this reflex. If the Parti Quebecois wants to look for the guilty party, it need only look in the mirror. To solve a problem, we must first admit that we have a problem. A self examination must be carried out, and carried out now. No one wants to vote for a party of losers who do nothing but make excuses, in any case. This historic defeat is not a bump in the road, not a momentary aberration in our ordinary tendency to alternate holding power. The lines have begun to move. The sooner the PQ realize it the better for them (and Quebec in general). I am sending this message today because I know that there are many good people in the Parti Quebecois (I know them personally) who will hear it and understand it. I only hope that there are enough of them.

In closing, a word on Pauline Marois. She who made history by becoming the first woman premiere of Quebec did not perhaps deserve a punishment as severe as this, though her party certainly deserved to be punished. At the end of her long public career now, she has served Quebec with honor and we should thank her for the battles she has fought, and often won, in our name. The outcome is reminiscent of the case of Gilles Duceppe in 2011: we may have our regrets about how the rules of liberal governance dictated the fate that we dealt out for him. But the laws of politics are cruel and that is how they have been made: Marois is responsible for the outcome, like the electoral strategy that she pursued. She assumed that responsibility with dignity last night in announcing her resignation and opening the door for a renovation within her party. I sincerely hope that all members of the Parti Quebecois will equally assume their own responsibility.

Simon DeLorme Translated from French by International Boulevard