QUEBEC CITY // For all the stereotypes of Canada as a ho-hum, steady-as-she-goes sort of place, politics here can be a wild ride.
With virtually no warning from pollsters, voters have dealt Quebec's separatists a stunning humiliation and set off a debate about whether the French-Canadian province even needs a separatist movement in this globalised age.
The upheaval wrought by the May 2 parliamentary election is not unusual: in 1993 voters stripped the ruling Conservatives down from 151 seats to just two, in one of the biggest reversals in the annals of parliamentary democracy.
This time they reshuffled the deck four ways: by routing the Bloc Québécois separatists; handing an unassailable majority to a Conservative prime minister; boosting the leftist New Democratic Party from obscurity to leader of the opposition; and relegating the Liberals, long considered Canada's natural party of government, to third place.
The Bloc Québécois slumped from 47 seats to 4 in the 308-seat federal Parliament, rendering it all but impotent at the national level at a time when Quebec separatists are also out of office in their own province.
Separatism "may not be dead, but it's hardly healthy. You can't divorce the election results from the larger picture of sovereignty versus federalism," says Chantel Hébert, a respected political commentator from Quebec.
One reason may be that Quebec, 80 per cent French-speaking, has plenty of independence without quitting Canada. It sets its own income tax, has its own immigration policy favouring French-speakers, bases its legal code on France's and has legislation favouring the use of French. Still, the province of 7.8 million people always has been a contentious subject: in the 1760s, when the British completed their takeover of what was then called New France; in 1867, when the country of Canada was formed as a dominion under Queen Victoria, and a century later, when it thrilled to the visiting French president Charles de Gaulle and his cry of "Vive le Québec libre!" — long live free Quebec.
Spasms of terrorism in the 1960s and late 1970 injected menace into the campaign, and a "language police" on patrol for overly prominent displays of English, added an Orwellian undertone that triggered an exodus of English-speakers, mostly to neighbouring Ontario.
Since then Quebec has gone through one election, referendum or constitutional parley after another, sometimes falling a hairsbreadth short of approving secession.
Even now, no one is predicting the death of the independence movement. For one thing, this was a national election, and the Parti Québécois (as opposed to the Bloc Québécois) remains strong as a provincial party, even if out of power now. It stands a good chance of winning the next provincial election, in 2012 or 2013, at which point it could hold another referendum on secession.
From 1993 until this month's rout, the Bloc had won the majority of Quebec's 75 seats in six straight federal elections. Now it may want to shift its efforts from contesting national elections to boosting the provincial party as the standard-bearer of the independence quest.
But for now, the defeat is so thorough that a wave of young unknowns, mostly New Democrats, suddenly find themselves in parliament.
Even the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe was unseated. "It's very hard to fight change, especially change represented by ghosts - candidates who didn't bother campaigning, who didn't speak French," he grumbled.
Not all Quebec French-speakers want to quit Canada. The province currently is governed by the Liberals, whose leader, Premier Jean Charest, is a staunch federalist who rejoices at the swing to the NDP.
"They don't want the referendum, sovereignty, independence option," he said. "We're not there. They've moved on from that issue, so that's a very positive sign."