Meet the man with a plan to make Quebec a country, quickly
Option Nationale party leader Jean-Martin Aussant and Lisette Lapointe, wife of Jacques Parizeau, speak with media in Nicolet, Que., on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andy Blatchford
By Andy Blatchford, THE CANADIAN PRESS
Published Friday, August 17, 2012 12:56PM EDT
Last Updated Friday, August 17, 2012 2:07PM EDT
NICOLET, Que.--He leads a new party dedicated to Quebec independence, has a clear game plan for making it happen within its first mandate, and touts plenty of economic arguments for why his province shouldn't be one.
Meet Jean-Martin Aussant: the man who doesn't think the Parti Quebecois is sovereigntist enough.
Aussant, once a rising star for the PQ, abruptly quit the party in June 2011 over differences with leader Pauline Marois. He sat in Quebec's legislature as an Independent until he founded the upstart Option nationale a few months later.
With only one seat in the national assembly, Aussant fought unsuccessfully for his right to appear in the TV leadership debates -- the first of four goes Sunday.
So what does this economist, a former vice-president of Morgan Stanley Capital International, actually stand for and wish he could tell debate viewers?
He says the PQ, a party created in 1968 for the specific purpose of achieving independence, has become a "so-called sovereigntist party."
Aussant is frustrated with its wishy-washiness and refusal to set referendum timetables in its perennial effort to win over that crucial soft-nationalist electorate.
He takes pride in the fact that Option nationale would be straight with Quebecers -- much like former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau, who promised a referendum and quit right after he lost.
"We have to be extremely clear during a campaign -- there are no traps or pitfalls," Aussant said in an interview. He considers Parizeau a mentor and says he still receives advice from the old general. Last week, Parizeau's wife was campaigning with Aussant.
Armed with a majority mandate, an Option nationale government would immediately begin seeking to repatriate powers from Canada to control all of its own taxes; negotiate and sign its own international treaties; and lay out its own criminal code.
The Canadian government could agree or disagree. In any case, an Option nationale government would already be writing Quebec's own constitution with broad public input.
The constitution would include a declaration of sovereignty.
Finally, the people of Quebec would be asked to vote on the document in a referendum -- which, Aussant said, Ottawa and the rest of the world would likely deem legitimate.
"There have been 40 new countries since the first referendum in Quebec (in 1980) -- they've all been recognized and none of them has done it more democratically than we would do here," he said.
"If people (achieving) sovereignty with machine-guns are recognized, then I think people doing it with polls and referendums and votes would certainly be recognized as well."
For now, the scenario remains entirely hypothetical.
Option nationale remains far from attaining power. The months-old party is running 123 candidates in Quebec's 125 ridings, but recent polls suggest its support hovers around two per cent provincewide.
Aussant is pleased with the support, however, after such a short period of time.
"Only eight months ago we were not even on the radar screen," said Aussant, 42. He says he plans to run the party in future elections, regardless of what happens Sept. 4.
Quebec is home to three prominent political parties that support independence, including the PQ and the much-smaller Quebec solidaire. These parties say they're waiting for the right conditions to hold a third referendum on sovereignty.
Option nationale argues the timing has never been better to leave Canada.
One of the keys, Aussant stressed, is persuading Quebecers that sovereignty would be good for Quebec's economy. Like Parizeau, Aussant has an economics background that comes in handy when making that case.
So Quebec would lose billions in equalization payments? Good riddance, says Aussant.
He passionately argues that the current system is bad for the province. In a Youtube video, Aussant puts it this way: Imagine you have $50 to buy music you like. Your neighbour takes the $50, and promises to give you back $55 worth of tunes.
"What he doesn't tell you is that it's music you don't like -- and there are $25 in administrative fees," Aussant tells viewers. "So you started off with $50 and you ended up with $30 worth of music you don't even like.
"That's Canadian equalization. We need to face the facts: We'd be better off keeping our money and choosing our own music."
Aussant, who was first elected in his central Quebec home riding in 2008, said, "There are a lot of myths that we need to break."
As for the rest of the party platform, Option nationale proposes nationalizing Quebec's natural resources, offering free university tuition and pushing for a proportional voting system.
Option nationale has also taken the unusual step -- particularly for pro-sovereigntist parties -- of reaching out to members of Quebec's linguistic minorities. The party released online videos of Aussant speaking to the camera in English and Spanish.
He insists a sovereign Quebec would benefit people of all backgrounds.
Aussant left the PQ last summer at a time when several other Pequistes also defected over clashes with Marois' leadership.
Among them was Lisette Lapointe, who is married to Aussant's mentor: Parizeau.
An active member of the PQ since its early days, Lapointe was twice elected to the provincial legislature under the party banner. But she spent the remainder of her most recent term as an Independent.
Lapointe, who is not running for re-election, said she would have considered signing up as an Option nationale candidate if she were a few years younger.
Instead, Lapointe is lending her high profile to Aussant during the campaign.
She's also a card-carrying member of his party.
"Option nationale's platform is very, very clear... Easy to read, easy to understand," Lapointe told The Canadian Press at Aussant's campaign headquarters in Nicolet, about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City.
Lapointe appreciates Aussant's persistence. She declined to reveal Parizeau's own thoughts, but did draw a comparison between the two men.
"For sure, Jean-Martin Aussant is sort of following in the footsteps of Jacques Parizeau as an economist and as a promoter of Quebec sovereignty," she said.
"But I can't tell you what other people think."
That persistence was on display this week. As he campaigned with Lapointe at his side, there was some evidence of the tough fight Aussant faces in his own riding.
As a member of the PQ in the 2008 election, he won the riding, now called Nicolet-Becancour, by just 175 votes over the Liberal candidate. The third-place candidate, meanwhile, was only about 2,000 votes behind Aussant.
The two politicians chatted up residents of a local seniors' home in the town of St-Gregoire.
With news cameras rolling and reporters listening in, Aussant and Lapointe introduced themselves to an elderly woman at the residence.
The woman immediately told them she didn't support sovereignty.
Aussant began to reply: "When I have more time, I will come back and explain why I think sovereignty is..."
Then, the woman cut him off: "Absolutely not. I don't have time to waste."
But Aussant remains the happy warrior.
He notes that the legendary Rene Levesque lost his own seat several times after he created the PQ. As for Parizeau, he surely faced scoldings from voters over the years.
Aussant says he, like some other young politicians, enjoys the "luck and privilege" of receiving advice from the old tactician himself.
He calls Parizeau the greatest politician in Quebec's history -- even greater than Levesque.
"Mr. Parizeau never doubted, always had a clear message and a clear way of getting to the objective," Aussant said. "He never softened."
Aussant doesn't, however, expect Parizeau to follow Lapointe's lead and join the party.
"The Parti Quebecois is his baby -- I don't expect him to go out and say, 'Vive Option nationale,' " Aussant said.
"In the last few years in Quebec, (the sovereignty movement) was a bit stalled because the parties that were supposed to take care of it did not.
"So, I hope he agrees that what we're doing now is good for the cause."