National Affairs column
A few days into the April 7 election campaign Quebec is an island of relative tranquility in a Canadian sea of whipped-up referendum angst.
For the better part of the week there has been more talk of sovereignty and a future Quebec referendum in Toronto than in Montreal or anywhere else in the province.
A foreign visitor landing in the rest of Canada this week might have been forgiven for thinking that Quebecers were poised to spend the next month intensely discussing their political future.
In fact it is columnists based outside the province who are apparently dying to redraw the federation in their place.
(On that score the prize goes to the columnist who suggested that it should be made clear to Quebecers that if they separated they would have to conduct their future business in English in the rest of Canada. How different from the status quo that would be!)
Meanwhile, for the first day of the campaign Pauline Marois was so eager to avoid the referendum issue that she spent 24 hours ducking the media at every turn.
In what has to be a first for a PQ leader, the opening statement of her campaign was devoid of a single reference to sovereignty.
When the questions inevitably caught up with her, Marois essentially kept all her options open.
If the PQ believed there was mileage to be had from talking up sovereignty and a referendum, it would do so. But no issue is more likely to cost it votes in this campaign than this one.
As an aside, more than a few PQ insiders believe that if Marois has a hidden agenda, it is more likely to involve bowing out at mid-mandate after having burnished her title as the first female Quebec premier by securing a majority government than to lead an uncertain march to independence.
One of the consequences of focusing single-mindedly on the real or imagined sovereignty designs of a future PQ government is that it obscures the sea change that has taken place since Marois became premier.
A year-and-a-half ago this premier rode to power on a wave of social unrest. As leader of the opposition she had taken to the streets against Jean Charest's Liberal government and sided with the striking students in the national assembly.
On the day after Marois' election victory, it was reasonable to expect that on her watch the province would veer to the left; that her government would be on a permanent collision course with Stephen Harper's Conservatives.
Instead, while everyone was fixated on the secularism charter issue last fall, Marois painted over the stripes of her government to better court small-c conservative voters for a majority.
On big-ticket economic items, such as the trade deal negotiated by Harper with the European Union, the PQ has stood shoulder to shoulder with the federal government.
On energy Marois has essentially aligned herself with her Canadian partners, offering cautious support for the plan for a west-to-east pipeline to link Alberta's oilfields to the refineries of Quebec and Atlantic Canada.
One of the last pre-election acts of her government was to take a stake in oil exploration on Anticosti Island.
A year-and-a-half later it can be argued that one of the best things to have happened to Canada's national energy agenda may have been the election of the PQ to power.
In opposition, the party would have been inclined to align itself with the province's vocal environment movement - in the manner that it did at the time of the 2012 student protests - and obstruct a pro-development Quebec government every inch of the way.
It would be folly to ignore the PQ's sovereigntist ambitions. But it is dangerous to be so blinded by them as to ignore larger realities.
If Marois wins a majority next month, the referendum ardours of her party might just as easily turn out to be her problem as a headache for the rest of Canada.
As in the case of Lucien Bouchard, she stands to be caught between a base impatient for action on the sovereignty front and the contrary tide of Quebec public opinion.
As for the notion that there can be no productive cohabitation between a sovereignty-minded Quebec government and its federation partners - including a federal Conservative government - the past eighteen months should have put it to rest.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday,
Thursday and Saturday.