The strategy of the Parti Québécois, if it wins the upcoming Quebec election, is to stage a series of constitutional and financial battles with Ottawa – and use any defeat to help build its case for sovereignty.
With an election expected to be called this week, the PQ refuses to lay out a timetable for a third referendum on sovereignty in the event of a victory. Still, the PQ promises that it would immediately try and whip up popular support – possibly through a referendum on its constitutional demands – in a bid to obtain more powers and money from the federal government.
"I don't see how we can lose," Bernard Drainville, a PQ MNA and lead party spokesman on constitutional issues, said in an interview. "If Quebec wins, it becomes stronger. If Quebec is rebuffed, the demonstration is made that there is a limit to our ability to progress in this country."
The PQ's stand will pose a challenge to the Harper government, which is vowing to stay out of the provincial ballot that is expected to be called on Wednesday, with a vote on Sept. 4. In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office said the government will not comment on hypothetical questions.
"If and when the election comes it will be a choice for Quebeckers to make," PMO director of communications Andrew MacDougall said.
Last June, Quebec lieutenant Christian Paradis said that federal government will work with the winner of the next election, "no matter what government is elected."
The issue of Canada-Quebec relations is guaranteed to play a part in the provincial election. The governing Liberals are set to campaign on a promise of constitutional stability, arguing that PQ Leader Pauline Marois's priority is calling a third referendum on sovereignty and causing political chaos in the province. The upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, meanwhile, is trying to attract sovereigntist and federalist voters with its promise of a 10-year moratorium on constitutional battles, in order to focus on economic and social matters.
The PQ is refusing to box itself in on its timetable for a referendum on sovereignty, but vows to quickly make life miserable for the federal government after nine years of relative calm with the Charest government.
The sovereigntist party wants the federal government to turn over its powers and all related funding on matters such as employment insurance, communications and culture, and economic regional development. In addition, the PQ wants the language policies in Bill 101 to apply everywhere in Quebec, including federally regulated sectors such as banks and transportation.
"We want to move from a position of weakness to a position of strength with Ottawa," Mr. Drainville said. "We will work to make gains for Quebec, to obtain a maximum amount of money and powers. We will work to obtain the largest possible number of victories for Quebec and Quebeckers, on all fronts."
As part of its strategy, the PQ argues that the Liberal government of Jean Charest has failed since 2003 to force the Harper government to adopt policies on crime, the environment and gun control to meet Quebec's demands.
"There has been a systematic weakening of Quebec, which has accelerated since the election [last year] of the Harper majority government," Mr. Drainville said.
The PQ accuses the Liberals of failing to launch effective offensives on issues such as Ottawa's decision to pull out of the Kyoto Accord or the dismantling of the long-gun registry, which have faced wide opposition in Quebec.
"Jean Charest is afraid that any defeat would reinforce the sovereigntist movement, so he has decided to remain on his knees and be passive," Mr. Drainville said.
He acknowledged that at times, Mr. Charest has fought back against the Harper government, including on issues such as cuts to cultural programs in 2008. But Mr. Drainville said Mr. Charest's battles with Ottawa are "on and off" and only part of "electoral posturing."
The PQ refuses to promise that it will hold a so-called "sectoral referendum" on its constitutional demands, but Mr. Drainville said that his party is ready to use "all means" at its disposal in its constitutional battles.
"We will not only rely on tribunals or letters to our federal counterparts. We will do it by involving the Quebec population in the process, by asking Quebeckers to support us," he said. "We want the government's demands to be the people's demands."
The PQ promises to negotiate in "good faith" with Ottawa, stating it will be up to Quebeckers to pass judgment on the federal government's openness to the province's demands in the events of a referendum on sovereignty.
"If [the federal government] persists on building a Canada that denies the Quebec difference, we'll ask them to get out of the way," Mr. Drainville said.