MONTREAL - The party of Rene Levesque absorbed a devastating electoral blow Monday, a loss that knocked the Parti Quebecois's vote count back four decades to its days as a fledgling political outfit.
The result could trigger an existential emergency for the PQ, as it faces the realization that its very raison d'etre — Quebec independence — has been deemed politically toxic.
Pauline Marois announced her departure after Monday's defeat and very likely became the last PQ leader who will have served alongside Levesque, the party's founding father.
Levesque's first generation of troops has failed in its mission to secede from Canada, but the next generation vowed Monday to fight on, with Marois's blessing.
"There's a changing of the guard in the Parti Quebecois, a changing of the guard that represents the future," Marois told a chanting room of supporters in Montreal during a consolation speech in which she announced she would resign.
"And like Mr. Levesque had the habit of saying: 'The future is long.' "
In its first-ever election in 1970, the PQ won less than 24 per cent of the popular vote. On Monday, it captured 25 per cent.
Looking to the future, the PQ ranks include several possible successors who could make a run for the leadership.
Among the potential candidates are magnate-turned-politician Pierre Karl Peladeau as well as Marois cabinet ministers Bernard Drainville and Jean-Francois Lisee.
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All three men delivered fiery speeches in the Old Montreal hotel before Marois took the stage.
Drainville told the enthusiastic crowd that he wasn't ready to give up on the sovereignty project.
"We will never abandon it — never!" Drainville shouted into the microphone before leading the party faithful's traditional chant of 'We want a country, we want a country.'
But it's unclear what the future holds for the PQ.
The resounding loss at the hands of the Liberals is likely to force the pro-independence party to do some soul searching as it faces the grim possibility that its dream of a sovereign Quebec is on hold for several years.
The PQ has headed a Quebec government for only 18 months out of the last decade and has not earned at least 40 per cent of the popular vote since 1998, now a span of five general elections.
It did, however, cling to Official Opposition status Monday after finishing ahead of the Coalition party.
Marois, who lost her own seat of Charlevoix-Cote-de-Beaupre, came to power as Quebec's first woman premier in September 2012 after winning 54 seats and 32 per cent of the popular vote.
"The defeat of our party tonight without a doubt saddens me as much as you, if not more than you," said Marois, who called the election last month when the PQ was atop the polls.
Entering the campaign, opinion polls had suggested the minority PQ government was within striking distance of securing a majority mandate.
But that support began to slide after Peladeau, Marois's superstar candidate, raised his fist in the air and vowed to make Quebec a country — an idea most Quebecers oppose.
Marois followed up the Quebecor majority owner's dramatic proclamation by musing for days about how a sovereign Quebec would operate.
Looking back, Peladeau's maiden political speech was perhaps too forceful, said PQ supporter Steve Beauchamp.
"Maybe he came on a little too strong when he put his fist in the air — it might have been a bit much," Beauchamp said as he watched the results roll in at the Montreal rally.
"Maybe he scared a lot of people."
Beauchamp, 31, said the entrance of Peladeau, one of the most powerful media moguls in Canada, might have been the turning point in the PQ campaign.
The party will have to decide how to proceed now that secession — its dream — has proven so hazardous to its political fortunes.
"Yes, certainly we have our answer tonight," said Beauchamp, when asked if sovereignty had become toxic for the PQ.
Peladeau, meanwhile, won his seat Monday in Saint-Jerome, north of Montreal.
With his entry into the national assembly, he will likely become a contender to succeed Marois.
Following his victory in Saint-Jerome, Peladeau was asked whether his pro-independence enthusiasm during that inaugural speech may have hurt the PQ.
"Listen, I joined the Parti Quebecois, I joined a sovereigntist party — I am a sovereigntist," said Peladeau, who also laid what could be the groundwork for an eventual leadership run.
"I will make every effort, all my energy to work for economic development. I really believe that in the 21st century Quebec is a nation.
"It must increase its wealth, it must maintain this capacity that are our values and we do it with the solidarity that has accompanied it."
PQ supporters who gathered at Marois's rally fell silent after media outlets began to project a convincing Liberal win, mere minutes after polls closed Monday night.
Inside the Old Montreal hotel, small Quebec flags were handed out to the crowd. The mood, however, was sombre and few people bothered waving the fleur-de-lis at all.
Some people consoled each other with hugs and pats on the back. A few in the crowd rubbed their red eyes.
The audience booed loudly when a TV screen showed an image of Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard and announced he had defeated a PQ incumbent.
However, the crowd came alive with chants when Peladeau, Lisee and Drainville took the stage.
Lisee told the audience of several hundred people that at 90,000 members, the PQ has a bigger membership than all the other parties combined.
"And this Parti Quebecois that Rene Levesque created, it survived the Bourassa years and it took power, it survived the Charest years and it took power, and it will survive the Couillard years and will take power," Lisee said, drawing booming applause.
Security was particularly tight inside and outside the hotel, strengthened following the deadly election-night shooting during Marois's 2012 victory celebration.
Police cruisers were parked in front of the building, as well as in a back alley. Bags were searched and attendees had to pass through an airport-style metal detector to gain access to the rally, which was on the 11th floor.
On election night September 2012, gunshots rang out behind the Montreal club that held Marois's election-night rally, killing stagehand Denis Blanchette and wounding his colleague David Courage.
Marois timed the snap election to try to take advantage of rookie leader Couillard's lack of experience and, more importantly, so she could capitalize on a boost in the popularity of the PQ, thanks to its secularism charter.
Support for the party appeared to reach new heights on the back of the charter, a controversial-yet-popular project introduced last fall that would have banned public employees from wearing overt religious symbols in the workplace.
Polls suggested the charter was popular with a majority of Quebecers, but surveys also found that most people in the province considered issues like immigrant integration to be far from a priority, well behind more pressing issues like health care, fighting corruption and job creation.
The PQ campaign struggled to gain traction with the charter and continued to be haunted by its sovereignty talk.
Following Peladeau's proclamation, Marois spent several days talking about how an independent Quebec would operate — complete with talk of open borders with Canada and the continued use of the loonie in Quebec.
It was a surprising strategy, considering how polls have for years suggested that most Quebecers oppose secession from Canada. The PQ has long been forced to walk a fine line on the subject of independence, still a priority for hardcore supporters.
For days, Marois's rivals attacked her on the referendum issue. Journalists peppered her with questions. The party tried to pivot, but to no avail.
Indeed, the shift in strategy led to a telling, headline-grabbing moment when Marois gently — but firmly — pushed Peladeau away from a microphone as she tried to regain control of her campaign's message.
In the final days of the campaign, Marois admitted she had regrets and said she wouldn't have answered questions about sovereignty if she could have gone back in time.
On Monday, the 65-year-old political veteran, whom Levesque named as his minister of state for the status of women in 1981, stood on stage with the crowd chanting "Pauline, Pauline."
"Quebecers have spoken and we must respect this result," Marois, her eyes glistening under her glasses, told supporters before leaving the podium.
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