Anyone who was living in Quebec around the time of the 1995 sovereignty referendum knows that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just stuck a fork in his chances of ever winning a majority government.
I was lucky enough to spend the 1990s in Montreal, and for many years I worked as a one-on-one ESL teacher with students from all walks of urban life, from office staffers and government bureaucrats to entrepreneurs and entertainers.
Part of the typical course was simply conversing about whatever topic interested them.
As the ’95 referendum approached, that topic was almost exclusively the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and the whole question of Oui or Non to the idea of sovereignty. And what I came to see in detail is that francophone Quebeckers vote in favour of sovereigntist or nationalist causes for a huge range of reasons.
Nearly all of my students told me they were planning to vote Yes to the sovereignty-association option offered by the referendum, but almost none of them were doing so out of a commitment to anything like full-blown separatism.
Instead, most were interested in things like a “stronger economic voice” for Quebec, or shaking up the centuries-old French-English relationship that had, they thought, grown complacent. One even voted yes while hoping his side would lose by a narrow margin, which is just how the referendum turned out.
Some of these positions may be confusing or frustrating to westerners, but they remain a reality on the ground in Quebec. And if support for the Yes side in the referendum was widely varied, you can only imagine how diverse the motives are for voting for a party like the Bloc Quebecois, whose sovereigntist mandate has faded in recent years (along with the fervour of the sovereigntist movement as whole) to the point that it’s now something much closer to a regionally focused party—not so different from what the Conservatives have been in parts of the west for many years.
But Prime Minster Harper, a man with much greater resources and responsibilities than the average ESL teacher, seems to have missed all of this entirely. By vilifying the Bloc’s involvement in the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition, Harper has branded millions of ordinary voters in Quebec—a province with nearly a quarter of Canada’s population—as little more than a bunch of nation wreckers.
Good luck winning a majority with that kind of rhetoric.