As Scots contemplate becoming an independent country again — just seven years after deciding against it in a 2014 referendum — Quebec seems further away from independence than it has been for decades.
Due to complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the complete results of the election held in Scotland on Thursday were only announced on Saturday. The governing Scottish National Party (SNP) fell one seat shy of a majority in the Scottish Parliament — but thanks to eight seats won by the pro-independence Scottish Greens, Scotland could be on track for a second independence referendum.
Whether one is held will depend on a number of factors — including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Quebec was able to hold its own referendums on independence twice without seeking approval from Ottawa. Scotland, on the other hand, needs Westminster’s permission to hold a legal vote.
But appetite for Scottish independence is running higher than it was back in 2014 — and it’s not inconceivable that the United Kingdom might soon find itself disunited.
Canada, by comparison, looks like a paragon of stability.
For roughly half a century — from the start of the Quiet Revolution to the first election of a Parti Québécois government in 1976 and through two sovereignty referendums in 1980 and 1995 — the future of the federation looked shaky. These days, however, grievances in parts of Western Canada arguably might pose a bigger threat to national unity than Quebec’s sovereignty movement.
Long decline in support for sovereignty
The paucity of polls on Quebec sovereignty is just one sign of the lack of current interest in la question nationale.
In the 1990s and 2000s, polls on Quebec independence were published on a monthly basis — sometimes even multiple times per month. Now, polls on independence appear once or twice a year at most.
Only three polls on sovereignty have been published since 2018. The most recent came from Mainstreet Research — it found just 32 per cent support for independence, or 36 per cent among decided voters in Quebec.
Another survey by Léger published in December found similar results: 27 per cent in favour of sovereignty, or about 34 per cent among decided voters.
Among decided francophone voters (about 60 per cent of them voted ‘oui’ in 1995), support for sovereignty in the Léger poll was roughly 44 to 45 per cent.
More Scots saying ‘aye,’ more Quebecers saying ‘non’
While the trend line is drifting away from sovereignty in Quebec, it has moved toward independence in Scotland over the past year.
Polls put support for independence in Scotland at around 45 per cent, just a few points behind support for staying in the United Kingdom (the rest are undecided).
While that is a shift from the summer and fall of 2020 — when Yes support crested to about 50 per cent, nearly 10 percentage points ahead of No — support for independence nevertheless remains at a historic high and is well ahead of where it was before the 2014 referendum (which the No side won by a margin of 55 to 45 per cent).
The boost in support for independence can be attributed largely to two factors: Brexit, which 62 per cent of Scots voted against in the 2016 referendum, and the election of a majority Conservative government under Johnson in 2019 (and Britain’s subsequent “hard” exit from the European Union).
In short, the political situation has changed the landscape in Scotland enough to make a pro-independence vote in another referendum more likely.
Quebec has been going in the opposite direction.
The PQ drifting into irrelevance
There has been a long trend in Quebec politics away from the old sovereignist vs. federalist divide as support for sovereignty has waned. It hasn’t hit 40 per cent in polls since 2015 and you have to go back to 2005, during the sponsorship scandal, to find polls with more than 50 per cent support for Quebec independence.
The Parti Québécois, the standard bearer for sovereignty in Quebec, has been struggling as a result.
A poll by Léger for Le Journal de Montréal on Friday showed the PQ with just 12 per cent support, putting it in fourth place behind Premier François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec, the opposition Liberals and Québec Solidaire, a small left-wing sovereignist competitor.
The PQ’s share of the vote has slid in three consecutive elections since 2008 and it hasn’t done better than 35 per cent of the vote since 1998. In the 2018 election, the PQ put up the worst result in its history.
The Léger poll suggests the PQ could set a new record low when Quebec holds its next scheduled election in October 2022.
Legault’s CAQ has changed the game
The PQ’s support has been gutted by both the lack of enthusiasm for old constitutional debates and the rise of the CAQ, which has emerged as the main vehicle for French-speaking nationalists in Quebec.
According to Léger, the CAQ has 46 per cent support and enjoys a 26-point lead over the Quebec Liberals. This would be enough to hand the CAQ a massive majority government if an election were held today — perhaps the biggest majority Quebec has seen in over 30 years.
Despite the fact that his party doesn’t support independence, Legault has successfully corralled the votes of sovereignists. The poll conducted by Léger in December found that about half of Quebecers who support sovereignty would cast their ballot for the CAQ. Just about a third of sovereignists prefer the PQ.
The push for independence is no longer a priority for Quebec nationalists, who seem quite content with a CAQ government that pushes for more autonomy for Quebec within the federation.
Legault has so far proven wrong one of the arguments sovereignists used against him — that by abandoning the threat of a referendum, the CAQ would lose a lot of Quebec’s leverage with the federal government.
Instead, Legault has emerged as an important figure around the first ministers’ table — and isn’t the pariah among federalist party leaders that past PQ premiers could be. Federal leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet have courted Legault for electoral gain.
Legault and the CAQ won’t maintain their current popularity levels forever, of course. It’s difficult to predict what a post-Legault political landscape will look like in Quebec.
But with the political environment looking better for Scottish nationalists and worse for Quebec sovereignists, it seems that the next blue-and-white flag to flutter outside United Nations headquarters may be the Saltire, not the Fleurdelisé.