Canada stunned by fatal shooting at victory rally for Quebec separatists

Narrow win for Parti Québécois in provincial vote marred by attack, which left one dead

The spectre of political violence hung over a shocked Canada yesterday after a masked gunman killed one person and wounded another at an election victory rally for the separatist Parti Québécois, as it was being addressed by the new prime minister of the majority francophone province.

The gunman, initially identified by police only as a 62-year-old man who spoke French with an accent, opened fire at the back of the hall in Montreal, just a few moments after the PQ leader, Pauline Marois, had set out the party's longstanding demand for a sovereign Quebec.

It was not clear whether the shooting was a specific assassination attempt against Ms Marois. "The English are waking up... it's payback," the man said as he taken away in handcuffs by police. Ms Marois appeared unaware of the incident as she was hustled from the stage by her security men.

"What's happening?" she asked, as the gunman ran from the hall before being captured. Later she returned to the stage and finished her speech, asking the crowd to disperse peacefully.

Political violence is not unknown in Canada: the long-defunct Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) killed eight people and staged scores of violent incidents in a seven-year campaign against "Anglo-Saxon imperialism" that culminated in the kidnap and murder of the Liberal party politician Pierre Laporte in October 1970.

But that was four decades ago, and the shooting, around midnight on Tuesday local time, stunned the country. "It is a tragic day where an exercise of democracy is met with an act of violence," Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, declared. The "atrocious" act would not be tolerated, he said. "Such violence has no place in Canada."

However deadly the incident, there is scant sign that either it or the wafer-thin PQ victory heralds a resurgence of the Quebec independentist movement, on the wane since its highwater mark in 1995.

That year a sovereignty referendum was lost by a margin of barely 1 per cent. This time, although Ms Marois' PQ won Tuesday's provincial election, narrowly defeating the ruling Liberal party led by Jean Charest, it failed to win an outright majority. With 31 per cent of the vote, the PQ has only 54 seats in the 125-seat assembly, compared with 51 for the Liberals.

To govern, it will need to strike a deal with the centrist Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for the Future of Quebec) which won 19 seats and urges a 10-year wait before any new sovereignty referendum.

The result, Mr Charest told reporters, proved that the future of the province "lies within Canada", and in a statement before the shooting incident, Mr Harper made the same point, warning Quebeckers "not to revisit the constitutional battles of the past".

At the very least, no new independence vote is on the cards, with polls suggesting that fewer than 30 per cent of Quebeckers favour independence – even under a so-called "sovereignty-association" formula, where a seceding Quebec would first negotiate a new set of ties with the rest of federal Canada.

Instead, the PQ is likely to focus its efforts on winning more devolution from Ottawa, in areas such as regulation of employment, immigration and language laws.

Even so, such demands could be a challenge to Mr Harper, who has paid little attention to the Quebec issue since becoming Prime Minister in 2006.

"Mr Harper has tried to ignore Quebec, and now it has come back to haunt him," wrote the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper yesterday.