Here we go again? Making sense of the PQ’s rise in the polls

Charles Breton and Andrew Parkin | May 1, 2024

The 2018 Quebec provincial election was notable not only because it brought to power a new political party – the Coalition avenir Québec – but because it was a historic defeat for the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, reduced at that time to only 10 seats in the National Assembly. The party suffered a further setback in the vote four years later, winning only three seats.

With the PQ having been all but erased from the provincial political scene, surely that meant the decades-long debate about whether Quebec should remain part of Canada could finally be laid to rest.

Not so fast. Public opinion polls in the province have captured a dramatic change recently. In mid-2023, the PQ experienced an initial boost that saw them pull ahead of the other opposition parties. Then in the fall, an even larger boost propelled them to the top, well ahead of the governing CAQ.

If an election were held today, the polls now project the PQ would return to power with a majority.

And with that shift, we are now talking about a referendum again.

Is Quebec independence on the march?

Does the growing support for the PQ signal a resurgence of support for sovereignty in the province?

In a word: no.

The proportion of francophone Quebecers who identify as “mainly a sovereigntist” has changed little over the six years covered by the annual Confederation of Tomorrow survey.

In 2024, only 23 per cent of respondents described themselves as mainly a sovereigntist – which is more than those who said they were mainly a federalist (18 per cent), but not much different from previous years. A slightly greater share (29 per cent) placed themselves in between the two options, while another 23 per cent said they were neither one nor the other.

The same pattern held when Quebecers were asked if they agreed that Quebec sovereignty is an idea whose time has passed. In 2024, 51 per cent of Quebec francophones agreed, which is unchanged not only compared to when this current series of surveys began in 2019 but also to when the question was asked more than 20 years ago.

To the extent that there has been some change, it is that the proportion disagreeing has dropped off somewhat, while the share that is unsure has increased.

The picture is no more encouraging for the sovereignty movement when we look specifically at younger adults. In 2024, only 16 per cent of Quebec francophones aged 18 to 34 identified as mainly sovereignties and only 26 per cent disagreed that Quebec sovereignty is an idea whose time has passed.

In both cases, these proportions are lower than those for older generations today and lower for this same age group two decades ago. Millennial and GenZ Quebecers are less sovereigntist than their GenX or Boomer counterparts.

Even the current supporters of the Parti Québécois were not one-sidedly sovereigntist. Yes, PQ supporters (53 per cent) were more likely than those who support the CAQ (18 per cent) to identify as mainly sovereigntist.

But that still leaves 39 per cent of PQ supporters who said they were either in between the two options or neither, while seven per cent said they were mainly federalist. One in three PQ supporters (33 per cent) agreed that the time for Quebec sovereignty has passed.

Other issues are driving the PQ’s rise

So what explains the resurgence of the PQ, if not a renewed interest in sovereignty?

It’s likely a straightforward combination of government missteps and the failure of the other opposition parties to capitalize on them. The proportion of Quebecers dissatisfied with the way things are going jumped 14 percentage points between 2023 and 2024 to 46 per cent from 34 per cent.

Dissatisfaction with the province’s management of the health-care system (which was already high) also grew over the past year.

The proportion seeing the Quebec provincial government as the one that best represents them dropped, while the proportion saying that no government is best more than doubled to 24 per cent from 11 per cent.

The Quebec Liberal Party remains adrift without a leader and Québec solidaire still hasn’t been able to get out of large urban areas. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum and the PQ with its more charismatic leader has been able to fill the empty space.

Before federalists conclude that there is nothing to worry about – that the rise of the PQ in the polls is driven more by nightmares about hospital waiting times than by dreams of independence – it is worth recalling the other side of the coin.

While the proportion of francophone Quebecers who identified as mainly sovereigntist is not trending upward, the proportion who identified as mainly federalist remains small – fewer than one in five.

Only 42 per cent of Quebecers agreed that Canadian federalism has more advantages than disadvantages for their province. As well, for the sixth year in a row, our survey found that roughly seven in 10 francophone Quebecers feel the French language in Quebec is threatened.

The absence of a resurgence in support for sovereignty should not be mistaken for an indication of stronger support for federalism.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. In the second part, the authors will examine in more detail some of the factors that relate to support for sovereignty in Quebec.

Methodological details

The Confederation of Tomorrow surveys are annual studies conducted by an association of some of the country’s leading public policy and socio-economic research organizations: the Environics Institute for Survey Research, the Centre of Excellence on the Canadian Federation, the Canada West Foundation, the Centre d’analyse politique – Constitution Fédéralisme, the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government and the First Nations Financial Management Board.

The surveys give voice to Canadians about the major issues shaping the future of the federation and their political communities.

The 2024 study surveyed 6,036 adults and was conducted between Jan. 13 and April 13 (82 per cent of the responses were collected between Jan. 17 and Feb. 1) with 94 per cent of the responses collected online. The remaining responses were collected by telephone from respondents living in the North or on First Nations reverses.

The results presented above are based on surveys of 1621 Quebecers, 1297 of whom were francophones.

Survey responses are weighted by age, gender, region, education, Indigenous identity and home language to be representative of the actual distribution of the adult Canadian population.