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Separatist battle in Canada rekindled with Quebec election

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Canada is bracing for another fight with Quebec separatists.

Premier Pauline Marois today called an election for April 7 as she met Lieutenant-Governor Pierre Duchesne to ask him to dissolve the provincial legislature. Polls show Marois’ separatist Parti Quebecois may have enough support to form its first majority government in more than a decade.

“Today, I have summoned my ministers and we have taken the necessary steps to dissolve the National Assembly and call an election,” Marois said in televised remarks in Quebec City. “It’s now up to you, Quebeckers, to decide.”

A majority would set the stage in the French-speaking province for a possible referendum on secession from the rest of Canada, roiling credit markets and threatening to push the Canadian dollar lower.

“If they get a majority, I fully expect they will hold a referendum during their next mandate,” said Harold Chorney, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal. “Marois isn’t going to give up sovereignty.”

A majority victory for the Parti Quebecois would mark the third time since the mid-1970s the party has taken sole control of the province’s legislature, propelling Quebec into another confrontation with the rest of Canada that a former premier once likened to a never-ending visit to the dentist.

THIRD VOTE

Quebec has held two plebiscites on splitting from Canada -- in 1980 and 1995 -- under previous Parti Quebecois majority governments. The party will hold a third vote if a victory is in sight, Jean-François Lisée, Quebec’s international relations minister, told ICI Radio-Canada television March 1. The separatists came within 0.6 of a percentage point of gaining majority support in the 1995 referendum, but support for the cause has been stalled in the 30 percent range in recent years.

“Will it be during the first mandate, during the second or during the third?,” Lisée said on the broadcaster. “I don’t know.”

Investors may already be pricing in greater odds of political uncertainty. The extra yield demanded by investors to hold 10-year bonds from Quebec rather than Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, has widened to about 18 basis points, from below 10 basis points in August.

‘BREAKING APART’

The two previous Parti Quebecois majority administrations, each lasting about a decade, also coincided with the last two periods of depreciation of the Canadian dollar. The loonie has posted declines in 14 of the 22 years in which the party has held power in Quebec, including a 7.1-percent drop last year and a further 4.3-percent decline in 2014 against the U.S. currency.

“The Americans or foreign investors or whatnot, I imagine they wouldn’t take it that well,” said Darcy Browne, managing director of currencies at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce’s CIBC World Markets unit in Toronto. “Are we still a safe haven if we’re breaking apart?”

The rise of Quebec separatist parties since the mid-1960s has also coincided with a period of economic decline for Quebec relative to the rest of Canada, including the loss of head office jobs. Between 1981 and 2012, Canada’s economic output adjusted for inflation grew 109 percent compared with an 82 percent gain for Quebec, and the province’s unemployment rate has averaged about 1.4 percentage points above the nationwide rate over the past three decades.

VALUES CHARTER

Montreal, home to Air Canada and Canadian National Railway Co., has seen the number of top 500 Canadian companies based in Quebec’s largest city decline to 75 in 2011 from 96 in 1990, according to the Fraser Institute, a Canadian research organization.

The Parti Quebecois returned to power in 2012 elections with a minority in the legislature, ending nine years of rule by the federalist Liberal Party. The separatists received 32 percent of the vote, less than one percentage point more than the Liberals.

Marois’s Parti Quebecois held 54 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature, nine short of a majority. The Liberal Party had 49, the Coalition Avenir Quebec had 18, Quebec Solidaire had two and two seats were held by independent lawmakers.

‘NEW IDENTITY’

Support for Marois, 64, has since risen amid growing popularity for her so-called charter of values that limits displays of religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs in public.

The policy, which is most popular in the largely French- speaking regions outside of Montreal, has allowed her to put identity politics at the forefront of her party’s push for sovereignty, as language wanes as a divisive issue in Quebec.

“It’s about finding a new identity as Quebeckers,” said Antonia Maioni, associate professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal. “That’s part of that big narrative in moving towards an eventual sovereignty referendum. Who are we? How do we define ourselves?”

Thirty-seven percent of respondents in a Léger Marketing Internet poll published today by Journal de Montreal and the TVA television network said they would back the Parti Quebecois if an election were held now, compared with 35 percent for the Liberal Party. That result may be enough for the separatists to form a majority government, TVA reported.

Léger surveyed 1,052 Quebec residents from Feb. 28 to March 8. Results of the survey are considered accurate to within 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

‘WINNING CONDITIONS’

Even with control of the legislature, separatists would have work to do to achieve their goal of independence. Today’s Léger poll found support for sovereignty at 34 percent, with 49 percent opposed, 15 percent undecided and 2 percent who refused to answer.

Marois “is not on a suicide mission for sovereignty,” Maioni said. “The winning conditions are not there now.”

Quebec’s first woman premier, initially elected as a lawmaker in 1981, has said a majority Parti Quebecois government would hold public consultations on the future of Quebec, in part to gauge support for independence. The Parti Quebecois will also ramp up claims that Quebec is being shortchanged by federalism, part of a strategy Marois’s party calls “sovereigntist governance.”

FUNDING DISPUTES

Alexandre Cloutier, the University of Cambridge-educated minister for sovereigntist governance in the current government, released a report March 3 that found Quebec receives $830 million ($749 million US) less in federal spending on health and social services than its demographics warrant.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government won’t take the bait, said Andre Bachand, a former adviser to Harper on Quebec issues. He said the federal government will keep out of the election campaign and won’t get into fights with the Parti Quebecois over funding and powers that could stoke support for independence.

Marois’ best bet may be to capitalize on any groundswell of animosity that may emerge outside the province if Quebeckers re- elect separatists, said Bachand, a former lawmaker from Quebec who now works at Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa.

QUEBEC HOCKEY

Federal and provincial “governments will be prepared” for the Parti Quebecois, Bachand said. “The question to watch, after a PQ majority result, is what will be the reaction in the rest of Canada.”

One example of trying to provoke animosity was Marois’s press release last month congratulating Canada’s men’s hockey team for its gold medal in the Sochi Olympics, highlighting the Quebec-born players without mentioning the word Canada.

English Canada’s rejection in the early 1990s of constitutional reform that would have given Quebec more power was the trigger for the province’s last referendum in 1995, which the separatists lost by a margin of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent.

After that near miss, former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government passed legislation saying Ottawa would not recognize a mere 50 percent plus one vote and would insist on a clear question. In 1995, then Premier Jacques Parizeau, who penned the dentist reference in a 1994 speech, later disclosed that he intended to move to a unilateral declaration of independence without negotiating with Canada.

LOW SUPPORT

One advantage the separatists may seek to exploit is the federal Conservatives’ lack of representation and low support in the province, where the party holds five of 75 districts. The Conservatives are in fourth place in support in Quebec, polling about 9.4 percent support in the province, according to a four- week rolling survey by Nanos Research of 208 Quebeckers that ended Feb. 15.

It’s a vulnerability for Harper that the opposition Liberal and New Democratic Party, both led by Quebeckers, will try to exploit ahead of federal elections in 2015.

At a convention last month in Montreal, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau criticized Marois in both his speeches to party members. The main opposition New Democratic Party NDP has the most lawmakers from Quebec in the federal parliament. Leader Thomas Mulcair said in an interview with CBC radio on March 1 he has no doubt Marois will seek to hold a referendum, and said his party is best placed to deal with a Parti Quebecois majority because it’s the least divisive.

A Parti Quebecois majority means a “back to the future scenario” in terms of political and economic uncertainty, said Daniel Gagnier, chief of staff to former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, who Marois defeated in 2012.

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