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Quebec Separatists Return to Power

Christopher Sands

In a provincial election September 4 , Quebec voters gave the pro-independence Parti Québécois (PQ) a chance to govern. Will this mean a return to the Canadian unity crises of the 1980s and 1990s?

Not quite.  First, PQ leader Pauline Marois will lead a minority government, with more seats (54) than any other party in the 125-seat Quebec national assembly, but short of an absolute majority. This will force her to negotiate with the opposition to pass legislation, meaning that a referendum on taking the province out of Canada will be off the table for now.

Marois is the first female premier of Quebec, and a veteran cabinet minister who served in past PQ provincial governments. Her stubborn determination in the face of poor polls earlier this year earned her the nickname “la dame de béton” or the “lady of concrete” from the Quebec media.

Second, the leading party in opposition is the Liberal party, which still has 50 seats. Former Premier Jean Charest lost his own seat and will be replaced as party leader. Charest is only 54, and has had a remarkable career in Canadian politics. He served as Quebec’s premier for nine straight years; before that, he was the Progressive Conservative party leader at the federal level and served in the cabinets of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s. It is unlikely that his defeat will mark the end of his career in public life.

Moreover, the deciding factor in this election was the role played by two new political parties that drew seats away from the Liberals and the PQ. The Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Quebec’s Future or CAQ) led by François Legault won 19 seats that came mostly at the expense of the Liberals, and Québec  Solidaire (United Quebec) led by Amir Khadir, which won 2 seats and drew momentum from the university student movement protesting tuition increases.

Finally, the election seemed to solve little.  Student protestors claimed victory for helping to defeat the Charest government, which instituted tuition hikes. Yet the Marois government will face the same dismal fiscal situation as the Liberals did.  Provincial debt and fiscal deficits, and an already high tax rate (compared to other provinces) led to tuition increases.  Without them, university budget cuts may be the only option.

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