As Quebec’s Separatists Return to Power, English Speakers Grow Wary

After nine years out in the cold, the Parti Québécois is back in power in the largely Francophone province. What does it mean for Quebec's English-speaking minority?

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Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois addresses party supporters after winning a minority government in the Quebec provincial election in Montreal on Sept. 4, 2012

On Sept. 4, Quebec elected Pauline Marois of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois (PQ) as the Canadian province’s first female Premier. But that evening, her triumph was greeted with bullets. During Marois’ victory speech in a Montreal hall, a gunman wearing a bathrobe killed one person and critically injured another. He is reported to have shouted in accented French, as he was being carted off by police, “The English are rising up!”

While it was a lone, extremist incident, a sense of unease and uncertainty grips this province of 8 million, about 8% of whom speak English as a first language. Marois will preside over a minority government, having taken 54 of the 125 seats in the province’s National Assembly, nine fewer than is required for a majority. That the PQ has risen to power, bringing to an end the Liberal Party’s nine-year reign, is an indication that Quebec badly wanted change. But it isn’t an indication of the type of change Quebec badly wants.

The PQ’s raison d’être is a commitment to Quebec’s secession from the rest of the country, but it has clearly won by too narrow a margin to reintroduce that debate. In fact, a recent survey shows that just 28% of the province’s population supports independence. Marois’s win has much less to do with separation than with widespread disapproval and mistrust of the allegedly corrupt Liberal Party. Former Premier Jean Charest lost his own seat in this race and has resigned from politics, leaving the opposition leaderless. If not for the mass student protests over a proposed hike in tuition fees that rocked Quebec for months earlier this year, the Liberals might have been annihilated completely; many voters favored the incumbent party’s aggressive law-and-order stance during that tumult. (Marois says her new Cabinet will revoke the tuition hike. Also, the face of the student movement, 20-year-old Léo Bureau-Blouin, was among the PQ candidates elected.)

(MORE: Quebec Student Protesters Take On the Government)

As it happens, none of the parties had a winning campaign, and it is likely that another election will be held soon. But not too soon. The Liberals, now the official opposition, will need a year to groom a new leader and regroup. And the Coalition Avenir Québec, an upstart party that was hoping to be a vehicle for change but didn’t do as well as it expected, is not in any rush. Perhaps in the coming months Marois will be sufficiently shot down by the federal government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in her requests for greater provincial autonomy that she’ll be able to sell the separatist cause to a larger number of frustrated Quebecers. Perhaps the Liberals will revive, or perhaps they’ll be crushed by the results of an ongoing inquiry into corruption in government construction contracts. The province is at a crossroads. As Antonia Maioni, a political-science professor at McGill University, says, “French Quebecers haven’t made up their mind for the long term about where they want to be and where they want to go.”

That may prove worrisome for English Quebecers. Quebec’s minority Anglo community is, of course, united in its opposition to secession. And recent events seem to indicate that the PQ win has stoked the province’s language divide. Days after the shooting at Marois’s rally, a Francophone woman made news by throwing a tomato sandwich at a man allergic to tomatoes because he spoke English in the cafeteria line at a local hospital. This week, a photo of Marois doctored to sport a Hitler mustache appeared on Facebook, accompanied by the English caption, “How long will it take her to f**ck up Quebec?” In social-media posts that circulated on election night, young Anglophones threatened to take off for Ontario or British Columbia. One, by a Montreal transplant to Vancouver, read, “Today, I’m more proud than ever to no longer be a Quebecer.”

Marois’s election platform has called for various measures that could marginalize Anglophones. Among other things, she has pledged to expand Bill 101, the province’s French Language Charter, to make French the mandatory language for small businesses with as few as 11 employees and to limit access to English-language CEGEPs (junior colleges). But she will need the support of the opposition to make good on these promises, and that is far from a given. Already, Graham Frasier, Canada’s commissioner of official languages, has said he will be keeping a close eye on the PQ to ensure that the constitutional rights of Anglophones remain intact. The province has seen two votes on secession, one in 1980 and another in 1995, and the latter was lost by less than 1%. If, as an English speaker, you didn’t leave town then, you probably aren’t going anywhere right now.

Some members of the Anglophone community are, after the PQ win, airing grievances — specifically, that they feel culturally alienated in their own home — that they have held for a long time and that are largely independent of the province’s political leadership. Others are silent, passive, looking forward to the next election and to a reversal. However, the Liberal Party will have to remake itself and may not be able to take on the mantle of representing English Quebecers anymore. “The English community, we cannot stick our heads in the sand and say, Let’s wait this one out,” says Maioni. “Marois may stick around, and she may be the one to change things. How does the English community deal with that? How do we engage and remain active members of Quebec?” In this unsure moment, French and English would do well to pursue a communal coexistence separate from policy and political parties. Then perhaps the leader who finally brings them change will be able to govern beyond language.