The PQ leader Pauline Marois meets supporters during a visit to the Saguenay, Thursday, August 9, 2012. The election will be held on September 4.
Credits: ANNIE T ROUSSEL/QMI AGENCY
Leaders of Quebec's three major parties have made many election promises, but no promise has the potential to be as damaging to national unity as the PQ's "popular referendum initiative."
Should the PQ win on Sept. 4, it promises to allow citizens the ability to trigger province-wide referenda by amassing support from at least 15% of Quebec's electorate - roughly 900,000 people.
The election promise does have its caveats. The referendum question cannot involve economic issues, ostensibly to avoid citizens voting their way out of paying taxes. Nor can it breach Quebec's charter of rights and freedoms or the yet-to-be-created charter of secularism and the eventual constitution of the Quebec state.
The initiatives could theoretically, within limits, trigger referenda on any topic. However, when the word referendum is used in Quebec, it often means one thing: sovereignty.
Two well-known Canadian historians said the proposed legislation has the potential to really shake up Quebec and Canada as a whole.
Michael Behiels, a University of Ottawa professor and an expert on Ottawa-Quebec relations, said the popular referenda initiative will be, at the very least, "destabilizing" for the province and the rest the country.
Desmond Morton, a McGill University professor who specializes in Canadian military and political history, was more pointed.
He said he was "terrified" at the potential of some forms of popular wisdom that could come out of referenda, such as implementing the death penalty or teaching of creationism in public schools.
Both historians said that the PQ's election promise is reminiscent of the populist policies in Alberta during the first half of the 20th century.
Behiels said that in general, a PQ provincial government will "dramatically alter the national discourse."
"Pauline Marois has made it clear that she will push the federal government on a number of issues (relating to Quebec sovereignty)," he said. "And Stephen Harper will say no, no, no, no. And the PQ will use that momentum for an eventual referendum. It's nothing new; it's the same play in three acts."
However, this popular referenda initiative could take power away from Marois, who has been criticized heavily, even within her own party, for not being hard enough on separation.
Behiels said he believes the proposed legislation could be used "shrewdly" by members of the PQ to go behind the leader's back and trigger a referendum with outside help.
"And there is not much (Marois) could do in that situation," he said.
Morton said referenda are costly and divisive, and simply because the proposed legislation theoretically wouldn't include questions about the economy, "social issues have economic consequences too."
However, Morton was cautious about how much weight a potential PQ government would give to popular initiatives, considering election promises are just that: promises.
"It really depends on how (the PQ) play the game," he said. "The government in power doesn't usually want to hand over authority to other people."
Shirley Bishop, spokeswoman for the PQ, said that the results of the referenda will not be binding, but "advisory."
Moreover, she said that she didn't understand why anyone would suggest that the proposed legislation would be destabilizing for the province or the country.
"Everything that we have done and that we will do will be fully transparent," she said. "Quebec will not separate from Canada in the middle of the night behind everyone's back."