MONTREAL >> Quebec’s separatists are watching closely this week to see if the Scottish independence movement has learned from their failed attempts to break away from Canada. And it could be rejuvenated if Scotland breaks away from the United Kingdom.
The Scottish National Party, which is leading the campaign for Scotland to vote yes in Thursday’s vote on independence, has been advised over the years by separatists in Quebec, a French-speaking province where two referendums on independence failed, though the last "Non" was narrow. Polls suggest the outcome in Scotland will be close.
A vote by Scotland to separate from Great Britain could in turn bolster the Parti Quebecois, which has never let its dream of independence die, despite a steep drop in support. Jean-Francois Lisee, a prominent party member, said the two parties have held an open dialogue for years and the PQ now has a large delegation in Scotland studying the separatist campaign there.
Members of the Scottish National Party were on hand for Quebec’s last referendum in 1995, which almost resulted in independence: the Yes side lost by a count of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent.
The pro-independence counterparts have kept in contact ever since, and a group of SNP delegates traveled to Quebec as recently as 2011. The Scottish have inquired on how Quebec separatists organized their campaign and planned to acquire international recognition if they won, said Daniel Turp, a senior member of Quebec’s pro-independence forces in 1995.
By the time SNP leader Alex Salmond called Scotland’s referendum in 2013, "there was nothing we could have told them that they didn’t know already," Lisee said.
Since then, though, Salmond has tried to distance himself from the PQ leadership. He made a point of not appearing publicly with Pauline Marois, Quebec’s premier at the time, during her visit to Scotland in 2013. The PQ has struggled to drum up interest in another referendum and suffered its worst electoral defeat in decades last spring.
The two regions are different — Scotland speaks the same language as the rest of Britain, while Quebec has always been apart from the rest of Canada by keeping French as its first tongue. But the Scottish Yes side has plenty in common with the Quebec campaign of nearly 20 years ago, said Andre Lecours, a political science professor at University of Ottawa.
"There are lots of similarities, first in that the Yes campaign has been positive, with the same message, that ‘we’re good enough and big enough, and we can do it,’" said Lecours. "And a bit like the PQ, the Yes Scotland campaign has energized Scottish society and reached people that typically aren’t involved in the political process."
On the other hand, he said the Scots have avoided an often-cited pitfall of the Quebec separatist movement — a lack of clarity about what exactly would happen in the event of a referendum victory. Lecours attributes that to a detailed plan issued by Salmond last year.
The referendum question itself — ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ — is far more clear than the ones put forward in Quebec during the 1980 and 1995 votes.
The 1995 question in Quebec was 43 words, while the 1980 question was 106.
Lecours said the clarity in Scotland was more likely the intent of the British government, which believed a straightforward question would favor the No side. But with opinion polls showing a late surge for independence, that strategy could backfire.
Alexandre Cloutier, a PQ member who heads the group that visited Scotland, said he’s amazed by the SNP’s success over the past year.
"They have been able to bring the movement to the broader population," Cloutier said from Edinburgh, where he has gathered with SNP officials several times since 2008.
Cloutier said the PQ warned the SNP to expect a No campaign "based on fear" of economic disaster, like the one led by the 1995 No camp in Canada.
Lisee said he hopes a victory for Scottish independence could eventually revive interest in another referendum in Quebec.
"We have 48 people there, going through every square inch of their strategy and trying to learn as much as we can," he said, "because clearly they are doing some great things."