MONTREAL - Quebecers will go the polls next month with the Parti Quebecois chasing a majority government that could eventually march the province toward another independence referendum.
Premier Pauline Marois, first elected to a minority mandate 18 months ago, announced the April 7 vote Wednesday after meeting with her cabinet.
Flanked by PQ MNAs inside the national assembly, Marois read a statement that listed what she described as her government's accomplishments since defeating Jean Charest's Liberals in September 2012.
Recent polls have suggested her pro-independence party could capture a majority, thanks in large part to significant support from Quebec's ever-important francophone voters.
Marois' seven-minute speech was peppered with examples aimed at sending the message that her PQ government has created jobs and been a sound manager of the economy, an area long considered a party weakness.
"Today, we can say the results are there," she said, before crediting her government with creating 47,000 jobs in 2013.
"We have put lots of effort — lots of effort — into our economic policies to make Quebecers richer in all regions with quality jobs everywhere."
The statement, which she delivered before a meeting with Quebec's lieutenant-governor, made no direct mention of independence, sovereignty or a referendum. She refused to take questions from journalists before leaving.
In recent weeks, Opposition Leader Philippe Couillard has repeated the warning that a majority PQ government would open the door for Marois to call a referendum on Quebec independence.
"It's a certainty," Couillard, an outspoken defender of the Canadian federation, told reporters Wednesday when asked whether he thought a Marois majority would lead to a referendum.
"All the new (PQ) candidates (who) came forward in recent days said that their prime motivation was the idea of 'un pays' (a country)...
"They joined the PQ to have a referendum. They want to separate Quebec from Canada. Let's stop kidding ourselves here. Let's face reality."
Marois, however, has so far refused to commit herself to holding a referendum if she wins a majority, and has said such a vote must wait until the appropriate moment.
If elected to a majority, she has promised to consult Quebecers first on the merits of holding another vote on sovereignty.
Polls have suggested that support for independence has been around 40 per cent in Quebec, which voted against sovereignty in the 1980 and 1995 referendums.
Last month, PQ Environment Minister Yves-Francois Blanchet predicted the Marois government would hold a referendum in its first majority mandate because the party has called such votes in each of its past cycles in power.
Election fever had been building in recent weeks amid a flurry of spending announcements from the minority PQ government as well as the introduction of candidates for all political parties.
Marois argued Wednesday that her government had no choice but to pull the plug due to the opposition parties' stated intentions to defeat the PQ's budget, which was presented last month.
"Now it's up to you, Quebecers, to decide," she said. "You know my team, my team that is solid, that has proved itself."
Marois credited the PQ for controlling government spending, fighting corruption, taking better care of seniors and creating thousands of daycare spaces.
She also touted the merits of her government's controversial-yet-popular secularism charter, which polls suggest has delivered a major boost to the PQ's support.
"We have a charter that finally gives us the means to see that our common values are respected, such as equality between men and women, like religious neutrality of the state," Marois said.
The PQ secularism plan aims to prohibit public employees from wearing ostentatious religious symbols at work, such as the Muslim head scarf and Sikh turban.
The values charter, however, has even proven divisive within Marois' party. Former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau, who infamously blamed the 1995 referendum loss on "money and the ethnic vote," and Lucien Bouchard have both said it goes too far.
On Wednesday, a media report revealed that a senior staffer in the office of PQ cabinet minister Jean-Francois Lisee quit her job last week because she was uneasy over the charter and felt she couldn't defend it.
"I respect her position, again there's no unanimity on this question," Lisee told reporters Wednesday when asked about the departure of Christine Frechette, his assistant chief of staff.
"We're still trying to convince Mr. Parizeau, but we have a very strong majority in favour and that's fine with us."
Couillard attacked the charter Wednesday for inflicting "significant damage" on Quebec's diverse communities and accused Marois of calling an election to hide from important public debates on subjects like the province's hobbled economy.
He insisted Quebecers are more concerned about issues like jobs, health care and education than the charter. Couillard, however, acknowledged he wasn't surprised about the secularism plan's popularity.
"I thought it would be an easy fuse to light," he said in response to a reporter's question on the subject.
"If I had a surprise, it was to see Rene Levesque's party coming forward with such a retrograde policy."
Couillard, whose Liberals held power from 2003 until 2012 under Charest, promised his team would focus on "jobs, jobs, jobs."
Francois Legault, the leader of the third-place Coalition party, has accused Marois of wanting to run her campaign on the controversial secularism charter alone to avoid talking about the poor state of Quebec's economy.
Legault also said the platform of his right-of-centre party would improve Quebec's economic position and he criticized the PQ for its fiscal mismanagement.
"This government wants to hide the real state of public finances," Legault, a co-founder of the Air Transat airline, told reporters.
"We need a government that will relaunch the Quebec economy."
Legault also pointed out that by calling an election, Marois broke one of her 2012 campaign promises: fixed election dates.
The PQ had promised in the last campaign to bring in new legislation after accusing then-premier Charest of manipulating dates to improve his chances of re-election.
Last year, the national assembly adopted a fixed-election-date law to only send Quebecers back to the polls on Oct. 3, 2016.
"I don't think anything could be further from the spirit of that law," Legault said. "And then we ask why there's cynicism, why people no longer believe in the entire political class."
Before the election call, the PQ held 54 seats in the legislature, nine short of the majority-government benchmark of 63.
Meanwhile, the Liberals had 49 ridings, the Coalition had 18, the left-leaning Quebec solidaire had two and two MNAs sat as Independents.
Asked about the pressure of representing the hopes of federalists, Couillard expressed his party's admiration for the strength of Quebec's identity.
"But we also believe — strongly, deeply — that belonging to the Canadian federation is one of the most-powerful levers for development that we have in Quebec," Couillard said.
"This is why we believe in Canada, not only for accountancy reasons but because we like this openness, this sharing that the country signifies."
The start of the 33-day campaign Wednesday also led to the suspension of the ongoing provincial corruption inquiry. The Charbonneau Commission will sit next week, as scheduled, but will then take a break until April 8.
The temporary shutdown will keep the public inquiry from examining potentially sensitive subjects, such as political party financing, during the campaign.
A statement from the Charbonneau inquiry said the hearings are politically neutral and that it would be inappropriate to continue them before the vote.
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