Opinion | Quebec separatists were looking for a way to revive their cause. It is this?

MONTREAL — Since the 1995 referendum, the Quebec sovereignty movement has been searching for a spark to reignite the secessionist flame. Could a heated debate over immigration policy do the trick?

What is certain is that some of its main supporters believe they may have hit on a narrative capable of breathing new life into their cause.

The core of that narrative has more to do with raising alarm about the prospect of the rest of Canada opening the immigration floodgates than stoking anti-immigration fears in Quebec itself.

If the latter were the main element of the plot, its champions could have an uphill battle on their hands. A Léger poll this week suggested that when it comes to immigration, Quebecers are more or less on the same page as other Canadians.

In fact, in the French-language media these days, not a week goes by without a story lamenting how the federal Immigration Department continues to throw red tape at the province’s efforts to attract more French-speaking immigrants.

But the latest ongoing discussion in both media and political circles revolves around a more familiar concern, and that is the fear of Quebec’s loss of influence in the federation.

The argument is as follows: the demographic weight of the province is destined to decrease drastically as a result of Canada’s expansive immigration policies.

There is no way Quebec can keep up with the growth of immigration lists in the rest of the country and successfully integrate an increasing number of newcomers into its French-speaking mainstream.

Therefore, independence is the only way for Quebec to continue to have some control over its destiny.

Based on this logic, there are those who would have Prime Minister François Legault reconnect with his pro-sovereignty roots and lead the province to another referendum and, ultimately, sovereignty.

In a recent column in Le Journal de Montréal, Mathieu Bock-Côté, one of the province’s leading pro-sovereignty intellectuals, described this as a moral duty.

To say that Legault has so far been tepid about the suggestion is an understatement.

His government is based on an alliance between sovereignists and federalists. A move along the lines suggested by some of his fellow sovereignists would shatter his coalition.

There is also little evidence that Quebec voters are any more interested than in the decades after the hotly contested 1995 referendum in being asked again to speak out on their political future.

To this day, support for sovereignty declines with each age cohort.

But that doesn’t mean Legault can afford to ignore the prospect of a sovereignist renaissance at the expense of his nationalist party.

With only three seats in the National Assembly, the return of the Parti Québécois to the main political leagues and eventually to government may seem like little more than a pipe dream.

But since the last election, there have been encouraging signs of life for the PQ.

Its latest leader, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, is well regarded outside his party ranks and polls suggest some non-practicing sovereignist voters may be coming home.

A few weeks ago, the Legault government announced it was abandoning its plan to build a car tunnel linking the southern shoreline of Quebec City with the provincial capital.

For reneging on what was a signature promise in last fall’s provincial elections, the CAQ received a predictable blow to voting intentions.

The PQ, even as it opposed the defunct tunnel plan, was the main beneficiary of the backlash, leaping to first place in the provincial capital region for the first time in decades.

At the same time, there is an ongoing rapprochement between the Bloc Québécois and its provincial cousins, with the former leading the charge in the House of Commons against federal immigration policies.

For the first time since 2011, a PQ leader will deliver a speech at this weekend’s Bloc Québécois convention.

But even as the sovereignist leadership focuses on a projected increase in the number of immigrants out of the province to shore up its case in Quebec, it has cause for concern on the home front.

The province’s rapidly aging population and labor shortages catering to the gray wave about to engulf Quebec mean its economic future rests, at least in part, on attracting more immigrants.

Whether due to demographic attrition or immigration or both, Quebec will only become more diverse in the future.

The sovereignty movement has yet to convince the last few generations of French-speaking Québecois of the urgency of achieving political independence for Canada.

He has never been very successful in attracting supporters to his cause who were not born in Quebec.

The clock on the sovereign’s ability to meet what its leaders see as the province’s fate runs closer to home than its latest denunciation of federal immigration policies would suggest.

Chantal Hébert is a Montreal-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Contact her by email: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert


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