WASHINGTON — Fifteen years removed from the last referendum on sovereignty, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe was in the U.S. capital Friday with a message familiar to Canadian ears but a potential eyebrow-raiser south of the border: Quebec separatism, he said, is far from dead.
“I am here to tell you that the question of Quebec’s political future is by no means settled,” Duceppe told attendees at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“A sovereign Quebec will be a win-win outcome for Quebecers, Canada, the U.S. and the world — for everyone except those who are nostalgic for a Canadian dream that no longer exists.”
During a two-day visit to the U.S. capital, Duceppe said his intent was to brace the United States for a ’Yes’ vote in a third referendum on Quebec sovereignty, even though no such vote is planned.
He listed what he considers the virtues of an independent Quebec from an American perspective, and even likened the protracted fight for sovereignty to the historic fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
“When the wall of Berlin collapsed, it was a lot of decades, but that hour will not come if people did not fight hard in the past for quite a few decades,” he said. “It’s not a straight highway; there’s curves.”
Duceppe and the two Bloc MPs accompanying him did not meet with Obama administration officials, however. Instead, they sat down with bureaucrats at the U.S. State Department and made appearances at think-tanks.
“They have something else to do in the next few days and there’s a mid-term election coming; I understand that perfectly,” Duceppe said.
“They didn’t refuse to meet me. I didn’t ask to meet them, but I’d be interested in the future.”
In the absence of face time with trusted advisers to U.S. President Barack Obama, Duceppe used his time in front of the microphone at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a couple of blocks from the White House, to urge Americans not to meddle in Canadian affairs if Quebec votes to separate.
Instead, he said, Americans should move swiftly to recognize an independent Quebec.
“What we hope to see from the United States government is, first and foremost, no interference in our domestic affairs when Quebecers make their decision,” Duceppe said.
“Secondly, I am counting on the United States to be a decisive player in the event that the ‘Yes’ side wins a referendum, and to push for negotiations and a quick and orderly resolution between Canada and Quebec.”
In return, he said, Americans would be getting “two very solid allies for the price of one.”
During the 1995 referendum campaign, former U.S. president Bill Clinton spoke out against Quebec sovereignty.
Duceppe dismissed surveys suggesting most Quebecers have lost interest in independence.
“Remember that in September 1995, sovereignty was at 38 per cent,” he said. “We finished at 49.4, 30 days after.”
The Bloc leader also brushed off mention of two former Parti Quebecois members who are reportedly attempting to start up a provincial party that is not separatist.
There have been suggestions Francois Legault and Joseph Facal want to create a party that is right-of-centre on economic issues and is detached from the independence debate.
Sovereigntists and federalists have put different spins on what impact such a party might have. Separatists say it would drain support away from the Liberals if it shelved talk of independence. Federalists argue, however, that Legault and Facal could lure people away from the PQ.
The last Quebec election was in December 2008, and another one is likely a few years off.
Even if the PQ wins that vote, however, there’s no guarantee there would be a referendum. Recent PQ premiers have opted against holding a sovereignty vote.
After his remarks, Duceppe was peppered with questions from Americans and Canadians in attendance.
One asked how Duceppe could promise Quebec would support minority language rights given its sign laws.
“In the last 20 years, Quebec has a record of really infringing on language rights,” said David Short, a senior attorney at FedEx who specializes in trade and international law.
“There’s not a minority on Earth better treated than the English people, the Anglo-Quebecers,” he said.
“There’s more bilingualism in Quebec than anywhere else in the rest of Canada…. We’re not against the English language, and there’s no danger of English disappearing in North America.”
Short also challenged Duceppe’s notion that Quebec could easily enter into a free-trade agreement with the United States post-separation.
“In Washington, trade they say is a four-letter word, not a five-letter word, it’s so politically sensitive,” Short said.
“I would respectfully suggest that it’s going to be more complicated in the hypothetical situation of a sovereign Quebec and you have to decide what’s going to happen to NAFTA …. it’s going to be a very nasty, ugly, protracted discussion.”
Duceppe swerved around the NAFTA question.
“If it’s tough for Quebec, then it would be tough also on Mexico and Canada because reopening is reopening,” he said.