LÉVIS, Que. — Quebecers have put the idea of sovereignty behind them, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister said Tuesday as he was formally announced as a candidate for the Coalition Avenir Québec.
Bernard Drainville made the comments after he was officially introduced as a star candidate in the Quebec City-area riding of Lévis for Premier François Legault's political party ahead of the summer provincial election campaign.
Drainville said he has realized that Quebecers are no longer interested in the debate between federalism and sovereignty that dominated political discourse in the province for nearly 50 years. Instead, he said, they favour the Coalition Avenir Québec's nationalist approach, which he defined as fighting for a stronger Quebec within Canada.
"Quebecers don’t have an appetite for this debate," Drainville told reporters.
"We spent 50 years debating it. Now Quebecers are saying: work within Canada to reinforce us, to improve our daily lives, to make us advance as much as possible."
Despite repeatedly saying he has always been a nationalist, Drainville sidestepped questions regarding whether he was a still a separatist at heart.
"I don’t feel like fighting that battle," he said, adding that if he had wanted to campaign for sovereignty, he would have rejoined the Parti Québécois.
Drainville, a well-known radio host, is the second prominent person to have championed independence in the past to join the Coalition Avenir Québec in recent days, following former Bloc Québécois MP Caroline St-Hilaire.
He is known for having presented a so-called values charter that would have prevented people who wear religious symbols from working in public institutions, back when he was in government with the Parti Québécois in 2013.
The idea for the charter fell when the PQ was defeated in the 2014 election, but the Coalition Avenir Québec took up the secularism mantle and adopted Bill 21 in 2019. That law prohibits certain public employees — such as judges, teachers and police officers — from wearing religious symbols at work.
Drainville's decision to join the CAQ prompted federalist members of Legault's cabinet last week to try and assuage concerns the party is preparing a push for Quebec independence.
Legault — a former Parti Québécois minister himself — has said he will never hold a referendum.
Drainville worked as a journalist between 1989 and 2007 before jumping to provincial politics with the PQ. He was elected four times between 2007 and 2014. Under Pauline Marois's short-lived minority government from 2012-14, he held the title of minister responsible for democratic institutions and citizenship participation. He was briefly the PQ house leader between September 2015 and June 2016, before leaving politics.
The Parti Québécois has accused Drainville of betraying his core principles by switching to the CAQ, which could easily cruise to a second majority this fall if current polling tendencies hold.
On Tuesday, the party published a screenshot of a 2012 Twitter message purportedly written by Drainville, accusing Legault of denying his convictions to become premier.
"We live very well with our conscience," the PQ wrote to Drainville, echoing the wording of his 2012 tweet. "You?"
Drainville on Tuesday denied turning his back on his values, noting that he was giving up a lucrative job in radio to return to politics. He said he began questioning sovereignty after the Parti Québécois's 2014 election defeat, adding that he feels support for independence has only diminished since then.
Quebecers, he added, have since moved on from that "old debate," and he said he has moved on with them. He said he's still ready to fight for Quebec, but from within the Canadian framework.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.
— By Morgan Lowrie in Montreal.
The Canadian Press