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Globe editorial: In Quebec, an anxious season for separatism

It's been an eventful few weeks for the Quebec sovereigntist movement.

To recap, Martine Ouellet, the part-time leader of the Bloc Québécois, was recently summoned from her day job in Quebec City to quell an internal revolt in Ottawa.

The insurrection arose amid the firing of her hand-picked chief of staff, cut loose for trying to leak damaging information about one of the 10 Bloc MPs who have seats in a different legislature than their leader.

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You see, Ms. Ouellet, while leading the federal BQ, continues to also sit as an Independent Member of Quebec's National Assembly, with the provincial Parti Québécois. It's not unusual for a relatively new party leader to lack a seat in the House of Commons; it's unheard of to be in that situation due to holding a full-time job in another legislature, hundreds of kilometres away.

After dire warnings from Ms. Ouellet and several hours of emergency meetings, the rift between the leader and her MPs was mended, for now. But will the sutures hold?

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the newly-minted co-leader of Québec Solidaire, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, was sworn in as an MNA. Two weeks ago, his socialist and separatist party rebuffed the possibility of a strategic alliance with the PQ, the province's longstanding standard-bearer of sovereignty and social democracy.

That decision, which polls suggest goes against the wishes of the membership, was uniformly interpreted as a humiliating personal defeat for PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, whose electoral strategy is built around reuniting the sovereigntist coalition.

There is every indication that the PQ and QS (and to a lesser extent the rump that is Option nationale, which is also in talks with QS) will continue to split the sovereigntist vote through next year's provincial election, and likely beyond.

So, things are going well in Quebec – if you're a federalist.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, owner of Quebec's allegedly most-loathed surname, is bobbing along at nearly 50 per cent in the most recent survey of voting intentions in his home province.

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And high popularity or not, it's neither a surprise nor a shame that Mr. Trudeau flatly rejected Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's invitation to consider reopening the Constitution.

That he did so before Mr. Couillard had even made his pitch for a new kind of civic nationalism – which includes aboriginal nations and linguistic minorities in its definition of Québécois – raised more than a few hackles.

Yes, it's not ideal when federalism's allies perceive the reaction to such an effort as unduly harsh. And yes, Mr. Couillard's recently published 200-page document was meant to be the beginning of a discussion, not the starting gun for a new round of blackmail and pan-Canadian recriminations. There's no reason to see the Quebec Liberal Premier's overture as anything other than well-intended.

Of course, the hellish road to Meech Lake was also paved with the best of intentions. After the disaster that occurred on that hazardous highway, it deserves to remain permanently closed.

The last attempt to reopen the Constitution led to a decade of full-blown constitutional crises, one after another, culminating in the 1995 Quebec referendum. It was a series of near-death experiences for this country; one nobody beyond the sovereigntist movement has any interest in replaying.

That's why Mr. Trudeau was absolutely right to shoot down talk of new constitutional discussions. The rest of the country has zero interest in reopening these old wounds. Let them heal. Move on. And let Quebeckers concentrate on making Quebec successful within Canada, inside the current, not-open-for-discussion constitutional framework.

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In fact that's exact what's been happening over the last two decades. A large part of the Quebec nationalist movement really has moved on, and is talking about how to improve Quebec's economy and society within existing constitutional arrangements, rather than focusing on constitutional change as the perpetual end goal of provincial politics. This is progress, for Quebec and Canada.

Handing the stage over to one more repertory performance of the same old constitutional show will only benefit those who would seek to fan separatist flames.

For evidence, look no further than the alacrity Mr. Lisée displayed in hurling himself at the latest imagined "humiliation" at the hands of a Trudeau.

The more the national conversation is focused on factors that can help Quebec become a better-educated, richer, fairer, and more successful society, the worse it is for the separatist cause.

These are difficult, fractious times for Quebec's sovereignty movement. It's having little luck renewing itself. Support for a referendum is the lowest it's been in decades. The last thing federalists should be doing is stirring up sovereignty's embers.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Martine Ouellet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, sits as a PQ MNA. In fact, she sits as an Independent.
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