Jean-Martin Aussant is everything the Parti Québécois wants in its politicians. He is a rare breed of devout sovereignist who, as an economist who has worked for the likes of Morgan Stanley in the U.K. and PSP Investments in Canada, can make both the economic and heartstrings case for Quebec divorcing from the rest of the country. A prolific and adept public speaker, his rallies often begin with the (usually young) crowds chanting his name.
Alas for the PQ, Aussant left the Parti Québécois caucus in 2011 to sit as an independent. The reason, as the fashionably scruffy and necktie-averse 42-year-old says, is because the PQ simply is no longer sovereignist enough. “The PQ has become calculating, manipulating and electorialist, with a total lack of vision,” he says. “It made the political calculation that they can’t win by talking about sovereignty. So they don’t.”
So Aussant formed his own party—and, in the process, kicked off a spat of infighting that threatens to further divide Quebec’s already shaky sovereignist vote. Option nationale came to being in October 2011, and though Aussant lost his seat in the provincial election 13 months later, the party’s focus on the promotion of sovereignty gained the support of former Péquiste premier Jacques Parizeau and his wife, former PQ MNA Lisette Lapointe.
In the wake of last fall’s election, the PQ’s credibility with separatists has only weakened further. In January, one-time PQ language hawk Pierre Curzi became an Option nationale member—put off, he says, by his former party’s timidity on the sovereignty file. Then in February much of the PQ executive in the Maskinongé riding northeast of Montreal resigned en masse because, as one of the ex-executives wrote, “The current party leaders, who say they are sovereignist, don’t devote much time, energy or resources to explain the advantages of having our own country.” Several of the members went straight to Aussant’s Option nationale.
With an inherently unstable minority government, and with the de facto defections of old hands Parizeau, Lapointe and Curzi, the PQ is having to convince its 90,000 members that it remains as dedicated to the cause as ever. Yet Option nationale continues to attract young and educated followers. According to party statistics, the average age of its members is 34, a sweet-spot demographic for any political party. Some 2,000 have signed up since the election, for a total of 8,000 members. “These are people that wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the political process,” Aussant says. “It’s not an exodus from the PQ, but an empowerment of normally apolitical people.”
Aussant isn’t the only disaffected sovereignist to start a party. In 2006 Françoise David, together with activist and microbiologist Amir Khadir, formed Québec solidaire. The party believes the PQ has strayed too far to the right. Today, David and Khadir sit in Quebec’s national assembly, having beat two Parti Québécois stalwarts to get there. Québec solidaire, David says, nearly doubled its membership to 13,000 during last spring’s student protests.
Taken together, Option nationale and Québec solidaire present a new challenge for the Parti Québécois and the sovereignist movement. Effectively, both parties are viable options for the young, sovereignist, lefty idealists whose natural home a generation ago was the PQ. Clearly, this is no longer the case. Option nationale and Québec solidaire garnered a collective 346,000 votes in the last election—enough, according to poll-data aggregator Too Close To Call, to cost the PQ 11 seats and a majority government.
Not surprisingly, the Parti Québécois government has been scrambling to please the disparate bits making up its traditional constituency. For diehard sovereignists, the PQ has promised a new, tougher French language charter and raft of measures attacking “institutional bilingualism.” For students, Pauline Marois’s government cut planned tuition hikes and topped up the province’s student loan program—a charge in part led by Leo Bureau-Blouin, the 21-year-old PQ MNA and one-time darling of the student movement.
To please members of its left flank who might otherwise stray to Québec solidaire, the PQ placed a moratorium on shale gas development in the province. Meanwhile, Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau presented a zero-deficit budget in November—an apparent nod to those economic nationalists tempted by the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir.
Above all, the party has called for sovereignists to unite under the PQ banner. “The PQ is the best vehicle for Quebec sovereignty,” says PQ Minister Alexandre Cloutier. “We talk about it everyday. Not one day goes by that I don’t broach the subject how Quebec would be better as its own country.”
But the problem isn’t individual Péquistes, Aussant says. It’s the PQ itself. “I have no doubt that my colleagues in the PQ are as sovereignist as me, but the institution of the party when it comes to elections has decided that it doesn’t want to run on sovereignty,” he says, calling the PQ “schizophrenic.”
As the PQ attempts to satisfy disgruntled diehard sovereignists, the reality is that group itself has been shrinking. The loss of two referendums, and the plain fact that with a minority PQ government there isn’t a likely third on the horizon, has tempered the collective desire to pursue a separate Quebec. It has roughly 30 per cent support in the province, according to various polls; in one, published a month before the election, sovereignty ranked 10th on a list of priorities amongst Quebecers.
Aussant and David are convinced they can sell Quebecers on the many virtues of sovereignty. Yet they may spread the ranks of sovereignists, already an endangered breed, too thin by doing so.