The deadly shooting by a mentally disturbed gunman in Montreal yesterday was a horrific capstone to what had been acrimonious and unsettling provincial elections in Quebec.
Pauline Marois, the leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, now becomes premier and vows to push for a referendum on secession for the French-speaking province. Shortly before her victory celebration was thrown into chaos by the gunman, she proclaimed, “The future of Quebec is to become a sovereign country.”
The Quebecois are understandably proud of their distinctive cultural and linguistic heritage and seek to defend it. But during the campaign, Marois flirted with some ideas that raised concerns among the substantial minority of so-called Anglo-Quebecers who have experienced distressing flare-ups of Quebecois nationalism in the 1970s and 1990s. These included proposals to impose a French-proficiency litmus test for all candidates for public office, to limit access to the province’s English-language junior college and to require small businesses to operate in French, all of which would limit education and employment prospects for some groups.
It became increasingly hard for Marois to argue that she wasn’t pandering to extreme ethnocentrism when she also proposed banning the display of religious appurtenance such as turbans, veils and yarmulkes, though not crucifixes (a very large one of which hangs in the Quebec City legislature).
This chauvinism is all the more disheartening as there is no way to conceive of a viable independent Quebec. Government debt amounted to about 62 percent of Quebec’s gross domestic product, highest among Canada’s 10 provinces. And Quebec is one of the biggest recipients of support from the federal government. For the 2012-2013 fiscal year, the Canadian Department of Finance will allocate C$17.4 billion ($17.6 billion) to Quebec, or C$2,170 for each of its 8 million people. By contrast, Ontario gets the equivalent of C$1,446 per capita and British Columbia gets C$1,231 per capita.
Previous outbreaks of separatism have been harmful. In the 1970s, the atmosphere became so inflamed that more than 100,000 of the province’s Anglophones left for good, enriching Toronto and Vancouver, but depriving Quebec of valuable diversity and human capital. There are fears now that Marois’ rise could produce a similar result.
Encouragingly, the Quebecois themselves don’t appear eager to relive history. Marois’ slim margin of victory deprives her of an outright mandate; she will need the support of at least one or two other parties to govern.
More significant, the appetite for separation is sharply reduced. A referendum in 1995 was defeated by a margin of less than 1 percent. In recent polling, more than two-thirds of the province’s people say they do not favor a split.
Secession is a losing economic choice in our globalized age. Much like Scotland and Catalonia, Quebec must come to terms with the painful calculus that the cost of divorce far outweighs the perceived benefits of independence. One of the great paradoxes of our time is that the best way to preserve cultural identity is to subsume it as part of a larger, tolerant and diverse country. Canada certainly fits that description.
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