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Indy ref Quebec-style: what goes round comes round

The Quebecois are watching us. Indeed, Scotland’s move towards a vote on independence in 2014 might have played a role in the resurgence of the separatist Parti Quebecois, which last week won a minority mandate to run the province again. It is all starting to feel a bit like Meech Lake in Quebec. This refers to the run up to and the aftermath of, the interminable failed attempt to herd the cats of Canada’s provinces into an agreement over its constitution. The accord, drawn up in 1987 at a conference centre on the shores of a freezing lake in North West Quebec, failed to proceed after a further three years of negotiation. Another was drafted.  This also failed.

If you think the debate about Scottish independence already feels convoluted and overlong, the Scots have nothing on the Canucks.

Although even the Queen said she thought Meech Lake was a good idea, the whole “distinct society” clause meant to appease Quebec stuck in the craw of the rest of Canada. As a result of the failure to ratify the amendments which would unite all provinces under the Constitution, a resurgent Parti Quebecois pledged to have another referendum on whether to stay in Canada, or forge their own path.

In the 1995 vote the Quebec sovereignists lost by the thinnest of margins: 50.6 per cent to 49.4 per cent. After this it got ugly, with leader of the PQ Jacques Parizeau standing on his hind legs to blame “l'argent puis des votes ethniques” - money, because the federal government probably paid more than was allowed to campaign against separation, and “ethnic” voters, which was everyone who wasn’t descended from French settlers and who voted instead to - love it or hate it - stick with the union.  These largely included the Anglophones, immigrant “allophones” and much of the English-speaking Cree, Mohawk and Inuit nations.

In the intervening years, the push for independence for Quebec waned as the separatists and the federal government fell to recriminations and simmering resentment. Last year the federal branch of the movement, the Bloc Quebecois, was nearly wiped out in a landslide vote for the left-leaning NDP.

This is why the establishment of Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois as provincial leader is causing consternation. Although it is not thought the pragmatic new premier is going to lead her party to yet another neverendum again soon, she is preparing the ground work.

And already the ugliness associated with Quebec independence has reared its head with the appearance of a deranged gunman outside the venue where the PQ was celebrating its win.  The incident resulted in a fatality. That the shooter is a suspected Anglophone only underlines the fractious nature of the politics.

Much of the PQ’s recent campaign was fought on the 1990s-style issues of language - speak French and have your shop signs in French, or else. In the run up to ’95, “Allophone” shop keepers had their shop signs vandalised by activists for not being in French as required under the fractious bill 101. Marois has also pledged limit immigrants’ access to English language colleges and to bring in a “secular charter”, banning religious symbols in public places except for the cross. This suggests a distasteful hearkening back to Quebec’s dark days of the 1940s and ‘50s under the paternalistic Catholic leadership of Maurice Duplessis, where Quebec was for the Quebecois and strangers were considered with suspicion.

Unlike Scotland, where some major issues would be decided by whatever Scottish government was voted in after a ‘Yes to independence’  referendum, Quebec has always assumed its independence would be on the basis of a monetary union with Canada - albeit Canada has never promised this would play out.

The re-entry of the PQ on the provincial political stage has already prompted one economic think tank to warn that Quebec risks more economic malaise, as campaigners prefer to focus instead on softer, more emotive issues around language laws, religious freedom and tuition fees.

The nationalist agenda, as promoted by the PQ, looks dangerously retrograde, as policy seeks to discourage immigration, impoverish the university system though keeping tuition fees lower than anywhere else in the country, and discourage corporate investment through an increase in protectionism.

Some of these issues already sound familiar to Scots. There is more than just the resentment of English students paying fees while Scots don’t to worry about in terms of keeping Scotland’s universities competitive. But, so far, Scottish nationalism seems broadminded and has not gone out of its way to alienate non-Scots living north of the border. And its record of attracting inward investment has been good.

The uncertainty surrounding Quebec’s first referendum of 1980 rocked the value of the Canadian dollar. The second campaign largely ignored the economy. The third will look to Scotland’s experience of a referendum for its direction.

By Erikka Askeland