TORONTO, Canada — At Quebec’s provincial legislature Monday, flags flew at half-mast in honor of Denis Blanchette, the stagehand killed when a gunman tried to storm the venue where Pauline Marois celebrated her separatist party’s return to power.
In Montreal, Blanchette received an official civic funeral, an honor normally reserved for police officers killed on duty. Marois, the premier-designate, attended under heavy police protection.
The high-level commemoration reflects the collective shock in the largely French-speaking province. What many now fear is that Blanchette’s murder is the violent harbinger of political and social tensions to come, with Canada’s national unity once again at stake.
Politicians of all stripes, including Marois, have urged people not to draw political conclusions from the killing.
“It is an isolated event and it does not represent who we are,” Marois told a press conference after her party won a minority government last week. “Quebec is not a violent society. One act of folly cannot change this.”
It’s hard to blame Quebecers, however, for believing the gunman had politics in mind.
Blanchette was a $15-an-hour lighting technician. He was at the back door of a downtown venue where Marois, leader of the Parti Quebecois, was making her victory speech. A gunman wearing a bathrobe killed Blanchette, 48, and wounded another man. As police led the shooter away, he shouted in accented French, “The English are waking up!” Then he added, in English, “It’s fucking payback time.”
Richard Henry Bain, 62, faces 16 charges, including first degree murder. Police are investigating whether Marois was his intended target.
Some long-time observers of Quebec politics see the killing as the extreme manifestation of anxiety rekindled in Quebec’s anglophone minority — and across English-speaking Canada — by the Parti Quebecois victory. After nine years under the Liberal Party, “federalists” dedicated to keeping Canada united, Quebecers once again have a government determined to make the province an independent country.
“There’s a level of hostility in English Canada that is at a boiling point,” Robert McKenzie, one of Quebec’s leading political analysts, said in an interview. “They thought it was all over, they don’t want to hear about it any more, and now it’s back. And they’re freaking out.”
Political violence in Quebec is largely restricted to the 1960s, when a group called the Front de Liberation du Quebec bombed symbols of what it considered English occupiers. In 1970, its members kidnapped the British trade commissioner in Montreal and killed Quebec’s labor minister.
Since 1976, when the Parti Quebecois was first elected, the issue of independence has been settled with ballots. PQ governments have lost two referendums on the issue — in 1980 and 1995. Marois has promised a third, but that won’t be easy.
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Despite holding key cabinet posts in previous PQ governments, her leadership skills are repeatedly questioned, including by high-profile members of her party. She managed only a weak minority government, despite facing a tired Liberal party, led by out-going Premier Jean Charest.
The PQ won 54 seats with 31.9 percent of votes, the Liberals 50 seats with 31 percent, and the fledging Coalition Avenir Quebec — led by a former PQ cabinet minister who rejects the holding of another referendum — won 19 seats.
Marois’ chances of getting majority support in the legislature for another referendum are at the moment nonexistent. The latest poll by the Quebec-based firm CROP puts support for sovereignty in Quebec at only 28 percent.
McKenzie, in a recent book called “Our Independence,” describes francophone ambivalence toward independence as a deeply rooted character trait. Rene Levesque, the late PQ founder and former premier, tried to reassure his conflicted citizens by offering them political sovereignty with continued economic links to the rest of Canada — the famous “sovereignty-association” pretzel.
But nationalist sentiment rooted in cultural survival — particularly when it comes to protecting the French language — rarely wavers. It was born with England’s victory over France near Quebec City in 1759, and was fueled for generations by the anglophone minority’s control of Quebec’s economy. It permeates Quebec society. Hockey, where the Montreal Canadiens have long been the embodiment of French Canadian aspirations, is a prime example.
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As nationalist fervor rises, so does support for independence. In 1995, after a handful of Ontario residents stomped on the Quebec flag, and constitutional amendments to accommodate Quebec failed, separatist leaders repeatedly described the incidents as humiliating rejections of Quebec’s distinctiveness. They came within a few thousand votes of winning the referendum.
With a federalist government in Quebec during the past decade, English Canadians focused on the joys of rising real estate prices. Many came to see national unity tensions as ancient history. But during the election campaign, as the PQ neared victory and Marois emphasized further measures to protect the French language, anglophone angst returned with a vengeance.
Many talked of fleeing the province. And an anglophone in a bathrobe went to her victory party with a handgun and what looked like an AK-47.
Once sworn in as premier, Quebec’s first female in the post, 63-year-old Marois will embark on a strategy to stoke nationalist sentiment. She’ll demand more powers from the federal government, including full control over laws governing culture and communications. And she’ll dare Ottawa to say no.
In Quebec, she plans to toughen Bill 101, which makes French the official language of the province and the language of communication in businesses with more than 50 employees. She also wants to apply it to businesses that fall under federal jurisdiction, such as banks and post offices — a move popular with francophone residents, but likely force a clash with the federal government.
Federalist forces, meanwhile, are flatfooted. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party holds only six of Quebec’s 75 federal seats, and his tough-on-crime, soft-on-environmental-protection polices are highly unpopular in the province.
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The left-wing New Democratic Party holds most of Quebec’s federal seats. But it’s no secret that many of its Quebec politicians are young separatist sympathizers. That leaves the federal Liberal party, which took the lead in fighting the last two referendums. It’s hemorrhaging support and searching for a new leader.
The provincial Liberals are also head-hunting for a new boss after Charest — the most effective federalist voice in Quebec — failed to win his seat. Moreover, a commission set up to examine corruption in the construction industry is widely expected to make embarrassing links with the Charest government.
Marois, in other words, will face few short-term political obstacles as she tries to fuel nationalist fervor — and English Canadian reaction — to her party’s advantage. And many in Canada’s two solitudes, as the anglophone and francophone communities have long been called, will be holding their breaths.