How would Quebec’s separatist movement fare in a referendum today?

October 30 marks 25 years since the 1995 Quebec Referendum when the ‘No’ side won by just 50.58%. Could it happen again? According to recent Leger polls 36%, or one in two Francophone Quebecers, still support sovereignty. Tina Tenneriello reports.

By Tina Tenneriello and Kelsey Patterson

MONTREAL (CITYNEWS) – While Quebec’s sovereigntist movement is still alive, it has lost considerable steam in the 25 years since the 1995 referendum – especially among young people.

That’s according to a poll conducted this month by Leger. The results show 36 per cent of Quebecers still support the independence movement while 54 per cent do not.

The numbers are in stark contrast with referendum results that polarized the country in the autumn of ’95. Back then, the “no” side won the Oct. 30 vote by the tiniest of margins: 50.58 per cent.

“Right now, the movement is dormant,” said political analyst Karim Boulos. “And if you’re waiting for the youth to revive it, you’ll be waiting a long time.”

Yes supporters cheer during a speech by Bloc Quebecois Leader Lucien Bouchard at a junior college in Montreal Tuesday, Oct. 24, 1995. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

That’s because sovereignty is not a popular issue among the province’s young voters. The Leger survey showed roughly a quarter (26 per cent) of adults aged 18-24 would vote “yes” if an independence referendum were triggered in 2020.

Around 70 per cent of that same age group supported independence in 1995.

“The youth of today are citizens of the world,” said Boulos. “They’re not just Quebecers.”

Patrick Quinn, president of Concordia’s political science student association, says young people today care about other issues more than sovereignty.

“I would say for the most part, they’re just ambivalent about it,” said Quinn. “Race issues have become very big. Definitely the environmental movement, job opportunities – those are the things that come to mind when I think of this generation’s issues.”

The main sovereigntist political party in the province, the Parti Quebecois, has seen its support steadily declining. The party received approximately 17 per cent of the popular vote in the 2018 provincial election.

FILE – Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau gestures during his speech to Yes supporters after losing the referendum in Montreal Monday night, Oct. 30, 1995. (CP PICTURE ARCHIVE/Ryan Remiorz)

Quebec Solidaire, the other provincial sovereigntist party, was slightly behind (16 per cent) but more popular among young voters for its progressive policies.

“The reason why people go to Quebec Solidaire isn’t the sovereignty issue,” said Quinn. “I would say it’s partly because of issues when it comes to the environment and affordability.”

At the federal level, the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois grew from 10 seats to 32 in the 2019 Canadian federal election. But experts say it doesn’t necessarily mean a reawakening of the separatist movement.

“I think the popularity of (Bloc leader Yves-Francois) Blanchet is why we’re seeing what the Bloc is doing,” said Boulos. “He was the breath of life the Bloc needed. So I don’t know that it’s a resurgence.”

A Yes supporter holding a Quebec flag chants nationalist slogans prior to a concert of Quebec rock stars in support of sovereignty in Montreal Friday Sept. 29, 1995. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

But election results and the recent survey don’t mean Quebec’s independence movement is gone forever, says one expert.

Jean-Marc Leger, the CEO of pollster Leger, says people are quick to forget that the current government in power in Quebec – Francois Legault’s CAQ – is popular among separatists. Legault is himself a former Parti Quebecois minister.

“Half of the people who vote for the CAQ are separatists, that’s one of two,” said Leger. “So sooner or later, this party will have to handle this issue. Are we federalist or are we separatist?

“Sooner or later, it will not be the Parti Quebecois who is dangerous for the rest of the country, it’ll be the CAQ.”

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