When I got the job offer from McGill, I did not seriously consider the issue of Quebec secessionism. This is partly because I was so frazzled at the time due to the long hours inside the Pentagon, partly due to the deep desire to get out of Texas Tech and Lubbock, and partly because I never studied Quebec as it was never violent enough to be comparable to the cases of secession I did study.
We moved in 2002, seven years after the previous referendum, which only narrowly went to the No side (rumors of voter by the secessionist side linger). I guess that was long enough for me to think that the issue was dead. But, I know, given my work and my reading of the literature on ethnic politics, that plenty of incentives continue to exist to ensure the continuation of nationalist politics with separatism as the focal point.
These incentives include:
- A first-past-the-post system that exaggerates the share of seats the larger parties get, so one can get majority of seats despite only gaining a small plurality of votes. A classic recipe for ethnic outbidding, where one or more parties promises to be the best defender of a group's interests.
- A split between Montreal (which is underpresented in the provincial assembly) and the rest of the province, which varies in supposed substance (English vs French, immigrant vs pure laine, etc).
- A political party or two (Parti Quebec that competes within Quebec for the provincial power struggle and the Bloc Quebecois which competes for seats in Canada's Parliament) who owe their very existence to the separatist struggle and would probably cease to exist or at least split if either Quebec became independent or gave up the cause.
- Geographic and population circumstances that empower Quebec within Canada, so that the federal folks can never write off Quebec, one way (letting it go) or another (ignoring it).
- Following from the previous point, the threat of separation gives Quebec much bargaining power to extract resources from Canada. So much so that some folks suspect that the nationalist cause is popular not because people want Quebec to become independent but that they want to gain more concessions. My guess is that this might apply to supporters of sovereignty to a degree but not to supporters of independence.
- A political system where a winning referendum would only need fifty percent plus one vote. This, of course, drives me crazy since fundamental change should take more than that. One referendum could be followed by another with a completely different result, just due to a small shift in turnout or drunk frat boys. Also, the temptation to cheat in such circumstances is higher, and fears of such would be high as well. It was fun to watch Quebecers ignore the European Union's requirement for Montenegro's independence--55%--which would be clearly insurmountable here.
Now that I have spent seven years here, on Fete Nationale, I feel safe in declaring that the nationalist discourse will continue, despite the best efforts of some of its leaders to sabotage it (Parizeau), and, the outcome of the next referendum (yes, Virginia, there will always be another referendum) will hinge on how clear the question is. If the question is quite clear, as forces within Canada and Quebec have been pushing, then the vote will be no. If it is vague, then outcome is less predictable.
Good times! Well, for scholars of nationalism, not so good for those who care about their home values.