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Separation Anxiety

Quebec’s Fête Nationale marks the end of a rough year for the sovereigntist movement

There are 1,250 kilometres between Montreal and New Carlisle. Jean-Marc Labrèche intends to walk all of them, right up to the house where they say Réné Lévesque was born.

Armed with a wooden, fleur-de-lis-tippedstaff, the sixty-year-old psychologist set off on his journey one morning in early May. Labrèche is due to arrive in New Carlisle, a town of about 1,500 on the southern tip of the Gaspé, on June 24, la Fête Nationale du Québec-or what is known in English as Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Along the way, Labrèche is taking time to celebrate twenty-one different themes from the late premier's life, including Lévesque as Humanist, Lévesque as Hero and Lévesque as Pilgrim.

Labrèche himself is an experienced pilgrim. He's written a book about his journey to Santiago de Compostela and speaks in the language of a spiritual traveler. "We want to awaken the pride of Quebecers and bring them together with the goal of affirming Quebec's independence at this crucial moment in our history," Labrèche told reporters just before setting off on his trek.

But like many pilgrims, Labrèche feels a sense of urgency; that the journey must be made before it's too late. In Labrèche's words, there is the sense that something essential is slipping away. Now is the time to consolidate the broken strands in order to make the dream whole again.

Rewind back to summer 2005

Labrèche's trip comes at a significant time for the province's sovereigntist movement. The Parti Québecois (PQ) is only barely ahead in the polls, and an election is expected to take place sometime next year. As the PQ begins to build its campaign machine, the party and its sympathizers must first overcome what has been one of la cause's most turbulent years in recent memory. It was a year of confusion and bombast, of contradictions and sacrifices. It was a year that saw support for sovereignty reach its highest levels since the 1995 referendum, only to collapse once again when faced with fresh ideas from Parliament Hill as well as self-doubt from within the movement.

The first signs of trouble appeared one year ago, in the preparations for Montreal's traditional Saint-Jean celebrations. In the good old days, these celebrations were intensely political events but in recent years Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day has been a politically secular affair. Folks of all stripes gather at Parc Maisonneuve for the main event to listen to docile Quebec singers with names like Boom Desjardins and France d'Amour.

Last year, however, Saint-Jean revelers were given the option between the usual festivities and a pointedly more political concert organized by Les Cowboys Fringants, an inordinately popular alt-rock group. Les Cowboys were joined by, among others, Loco Locass, a separatist hip hop group best known for penning the ode, "Libérez-nous des libéraux." The new show drew a significant crowd, with Locass members decrying the "schizophrenic identity" of the celebrations across town for keeping politics off the picnic table.

The rivalry between the two shows signaled the resurfacing of the sovereignty movement's traditional rift-hardliners on one side and pragmatists on the other. Pragmatists, such as Lucien Bouchard, tend to win elections while referendum-happy hardliners like Jacques Parizeau grow irritated when their leaders put short-term political expediency over nation-building. Feuds between the two factions are legendary and so are their victims-Lévesque and Bouchard both succumbed to hardliners unhappy with their ambivalence about holding successive referendums. Parizeau, on the other hand, was forced out when it became clear that he was a liability to the PQ's hopes of keeping power following the 1995 referendum.

Bernard Landry, who took a non-committal approach to referendum timing, was the hardliners' most recent victim. Just weeks before last year's Saint-Jean celebrations, he received a weak endorsement at a party convention and suddenly resigned.

Landry's defeat, combined with the dueling Montreal Saint-Jean concerts, demonstrated that the uneasy truce that had existed between the hardliners and the pragmatists since Landry took power in 2003 was now over.

Fall of the Titans

The race to replace Landry was a sordid affair, with long stretches of tedium eventually giving way to desperate electioneering. In early August, former provincial minister André Boisclair made a triumphant return to Quebec politics and quickly emerged as the man to beat. As it became clear Boisclair's toothy smile could easily deflect criticism about his cocaine use, lesser-known candidates in ill-fitting suits turned to nasty allegations and flat one-liners in their attempt to derail his tightly managed campaign. Boisclair nevertheless rode into the November election on a wave of support and triumphed over the seven other candidates, winning a majority on the first round of voting.

It was a good time to be a separatist. The new PQ leader was young, openly gay and a snappy dresser to boot. Just as importantly, he led the party to a huge lead in the polls, while support for sovereignty in general approached 50 percent. Boisclair proved himself a pragmatist whom the militant wing could swallow-and just to ensure he had the hardliners on their side, he set about touring the province, promising to hold a referendum as soon as possible.

Separatists were also playing well at the federal level. Emboldened by the self-destruction of the federal Liberal party and more than three years of sponsorship scandal headlines, the Bloc Québécois (BQ) looked set to dramatically increase their seat count from an already impressive fifty-four-some even speculated they could win as many as sixty or sixty-five seats. The Bloc's role in the march towards independence had always been ill-defined-now it appeared as though Quebecers were ready to entrust the BQ with their biggest caucus yet, one that would work in tandem with the forthcoming PQ government to set the stage for secession.

Winter blahs and spring woes

But that was November. The winter election was a disaster. Sure, the Bloc had managed to knock off a couple of Liberal cabinet ministers but the party was completely blind-sided by a surging Stephen Harper and, in the end, lost three seats.

In the months after the election, party leader Gilles Duceppe reined in the bombast of his speeches, eschewing the rhetoric of independence for more guarded criticism of policy decisions. The PQ then began to drop in the polls as Prime Minister Harper displayed a willingness to deal with such longtime hang-ups as the fiscal imbalance. Earlier, it had looked like the PQ simply had to show up to win the next provincial election-now, it seemed they were in for a fight.

To add insult to injury, in the spring, playwrights Michel Tremblay and Robert Lepage-once both leading figures in the fight for Quebec's independence-publicly criticized the sovereignty movement's future, confirming pundits' speculations that the wave of support the movement had enjoyed in the late fall and early winter had faded into bitterness and self-doubt. Landry swore he'd never watch another Tremblay play again.

It's a long way from Montreal to New Carlisle

Before he left, Labrèche promised his walk would "awaken our Quebec soul." Perhaps that's not a task for pilgrims, as Labrèche's trek only underscores the fractures in the soul of Quebec's independence movement. When I try to reach Labrèche on a lonely stretch of the road to New Carlisle, nobody picks up his team's phone.

You know that, somewhere, hardline cheerleaders are egging Labrèche on. Awakening Quebec's soul is serious business, they say. And besides, it would support their cause.

The year started off well for the hardliners. They felled Landry and succeeded in invigorating the national question. For a while, it seemed they were ready to drag the PQ back to its romantic roots. But somewhere along the way, they faltered. Boisclair and his band of merry pragmatists have convinced enough Quebecers, or at least have become convinced themselves, that defeating Liberal premier Jean Charest is the real priority. They feel every decision of the Quebec government, from privatizing Mont Orford to imposing contracts on government workers, is an affront to their very existence.

At a recent PQ convention, Boisclair announced he was shelving all the referendum talk in favour of education, the big-ticket item that will form the centerpiece of the party's eventual election campaign. Housing prices are up in Quebec and referendums just don't sell like they used to, say the pragmatists.

In the meantime, there will only be one celebration to choose from for Saint-Jean revelers in Montreal this year. The hardliners are eating humble pie these days and will join the pragmatists, and even a few federalists, for the usual friendly fare at Parc Maisonneuve. As the pragmatist crowd leads the PQ into the next election, the militants have been temporarily hushed-though no pragmatist should forget that hardliners like referendums almost as much as they like pulling the rug from under their leaders.

This Saint-Jean-Baptiste holiday, there is a tenuous peace within the movement. Les Cowboys Fringants are scheduled to play the official Saint-Jean celebrations in Quebec City. A few hours later, Labrèche is slated to unfurl a fleur-de-lis outside the home where Lévesque was born. The crowd will probably be sparse but at least for a brief time the town's bronze statue of Réné Lévesque will look a little less lonely.