MONTREAL — The question of Quebec independence has been put on the back burner during Quebec's election campaign, but Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon is fighting to secure a place for it — and his party — after the Oct. 3 vote.
St-Pierre Plamondon, whose once-strong party has been relegated to last place in the polls, invoked the independence question during the final leaders debate on Thursday, making a direct appeal to sovereigntists who jumped ship to the Coalition Avenir Quebec in the 2018 election.
“Your project is to snuff out Quebec’s independence; mine is to restart it,” he told CAQ Leader François Legault, who had once been a cabinet minister in a PQ government but who quit to form his own federalist party.
“There are voters who trusted you in 2018 because they wanted to replace the Liberals but who support independence — I’m appealing to those people and saying, you can now vote according to your convictions,” St-Pierre Plamondon said.
Formerly a polarizing ballot issue, sovereignty has been largely left out of the conversation this election campaign, but polls show support for independence remains above 30 per cent — and higher among francophones and older voters.
Legault, who has said sovereignty isn't a priority for the majority of Quebecers, was criticized by his rivals during Thursday's debate for refusing to spell out how he would vote on the issue. On Friday, he told reporters he doesn't want a referendum because it would be divisive.
Polling suggests a sizable portion of CAQ voters — more than 40 per cent — support sovereignty, making them a prime target for the PQ as the party seeks to maintain some sort of presence in the provincial legislature, said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University.
With the CAQ solidly in the lead in the polls, the race is focusing more on who voters want to see holding the government to account. Those who support sovereignty could see the PQ as a good option for a "protest vote," even if they don't necessarily want a referendum, he said.
St-Pierre Plamondon, who took the reins of the Parti Québécois in the fall of 2020, has promised to hold a referendum on independence in his first mandate if the party forms government.
However, "because the PQ has no chance to form government, even the idea of sovereignty is quite abstract … there won’t be another referendum anyway," Béland said.
"So, if you like (St-Pierre Plamondon) and you like some of his ideas and you think you need a stronger nationalist voice in Quebec City, why not give them a chance even if you know they would only be in opposition?”
The issue could also resonate with some who previously voted for the Québec solidaire, which also supports sovereignty. St-Pierre Plamondon appeared to be courting that base as well by agreeing on some environmental matters with QS co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois during the two debates, Béland said.
Far from the days when it was a viable contender to form government, the PQ started the campaign with pollsters predicting it would win one seat. But St-Pierre Plamondon's performance on the hustings and in the two debates, combined with Legault's "lacklustre" campaign, have allowed the party to gain a bit more traction, Béland said.
More so than sovereignty, the party's ability to capitalize on anxiety surrounding the French language has helped rally support, he said, noting the PQ was quick to jump on a recent Statistics Canada report that said the percentage of Quebec residents who predominantly speak French at home declined to 77.5 per cent in 2021 from 79 per cent in 2016.
Still, the PQ will likely return to the legislature with fewer than the seven seats it had at dissolution, and it probably won't achieve official party status — which requires at least 12 seats or at least 20 per cent of the popular vote — unless the tide turns dramatically in the home stretch of the campaign, he said.
“It’s not great from a long-term, historical standpoint, but it’s still better than what people expected at the beginning of the campaign,” Béland said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2022.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press