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Maple Leaf flag back in storage as Parti Québécois era begins

Premier-designate Pauline Marois smiles as members and people applaud her before she is sworn in as legislature member for Charlevoix–Côte-de-Beaupré with 53 other elected members are sworn in during a ceremony on Monday, Sept. 17, 2012.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Before premier-designate Pauline Marois was again sworn in as an MNA Monday, the Parti Québécois stripped the Canadian flag from the upper chamber of the National Assembly.

And the sovereigntist party removed the Maple Leaf that adorned outgoing premier Jean Charest's office for the past nine years. This is not the first time a PQ government has put the flag in storage. While the move may inflame passions among Quebec federalists and across the country, this time the symbolic gesture may be a particularly hollow one.

Ms. Marois led the PQ to a minority victory earlier this month with barely a third of the popular vote. She made no mention of sovereignty in her brief swearing-in speech. Nor did her election campaign place great emphasis on sovereignty, desire for which is at historic lows among Quebeckers.

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Ms. Marois, who will be sworn in as premier Wednesday, said nothing about the flag removal in her remarks after the swearing-in ceremony. "Quebeckers chose change and they chose to do it with a Parti Québécois government," Ms. Marois said.

"One of the changes is to put an end to the politics of division. What I wish is for Quebec to get back on course and reclaim its pride and confidence. When a people reclaims its pride and confidence, nothing, absolutely nothing, becomes impossible."

Asked to respond to the removal of the Maple Leaf by the PQ government, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office responded with a blunt "no comment."

The swearing-in ceremony has always been an awkward affair for PQ members. They must pledge allegiance to the Queen as part of the mandatory official ritual of taking office.

As a minority government, the PQ has no choice but to temper their sovereigntist ambitions in a climate where a majority of members in the National Assembly will be openly hostile to their political option. The removal of the Canadian flag may be viewed as a symbol of the PQ's defiance in the wake of a weak mandate received from voters.

In Quebec, federalist politicians are leery to get involved in a flag war. The issue is packed with symbolism that could easily stir nationalist sentiments.

For instance in May of 1991, then-Liberal-premier Robert Bourassa blocked a move by the now disbanded Equality Party to have the Canadian flag permanently fixed in the legislative chamber of the National Assembly. Liberals were divided on the issue but in the end voted against it. And no attempt has been made since to have the Canadian flag stand next to the Quebec flag in the legislative chamber.

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In 1976, the PQ was the first government to place Quebec's flag in the legislative chamber. It brought it to the upper chamber in the early 1980s. In the same decade, when the Liberals were in opposition, they tried unsuccessfully to have the Canadian flag displayed next to Quebec's. When Mr. Bourassa took office in 1985, the Canadian flag was placed in the upper chamber next to the Quebec flag but never in the legislative chamber.

Ensuring unity within the PQ ranks while placing sovereignty on the backburner will be a major challenge for Ms. Marois. But the balancing act will also include building alliances with the opposition parties and avoiding premature setbacks that could undermine her leadership credentials.

"What we need to do is find agreements [with the opposition parties]. That's the objective. We will need to build consensus whenever possible and avoid heading into dead-ends," said Stéphane Bédard, the MNA from the riding of Chicoutimi who is most likely to be appointed government house leader when Ms. Marois unveils her cabinet on Wednesday. "We need to build unity, find the points of convergence beca use that's why people elected us."

The PQ plans to build a consensus on several fronts involving government integrity and ethical issues, especially with respect to adopting new rules for the awarding of government contracts in the construction industry. A public inquiry into the matter resumed hearings on Monday and testimony by witnesses in the early stages of the probe will focus on the infiltration by the mafia and biker gangs in the construction industry. Revelations at the hearings may well determine just how far the new PQ government plans to go in putting an end to the corruption in the industry.

Finding agreement with the other parties also appears possible on the issue of fixed term elections and tougher party financing rules. However consensus on other issues such as language and the politics of identity may prove to be more difficult to achieve.

"Nothing will be voted with a hammer. It will be proposed, discussed. … We are forceful but we aren't dumb," said newly elected MNA Jean-François Lisée, considered to be an important player in Ms. Marois's government.

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But others are insisting on the need for the opposition to also make compromises even if it means allowing the PQ to establish its brand of so-called "sovereignist government" Ms. Marois promoted during the election campaign aimed at building support for Quebec independence.

"We have to learn to work with the opposition. But the opposition parties also need to learn to work with a government that has adopted a strategy of 'sovereignist government'," said PQ MNA Alexandre Cloutier. "And the first step at achieving this is it to defend Quebec jurisdictions."

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly said Pauline Marois was sworn in as Quebec premier Monday. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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