It seems to be Canada's way of drawing attention to itself - like the good child who, frustrated nobody ever notices her, decides to behave blowout badly one night. But just like the good children tend to do, they don't quite pull it off, say, returning home for an early bedtime, or apologising for their cuss words.
In Canada's case, tired of being seen as the prosperous, peaceful, decent country that seems to have it all, every 15 or 20 years, the French province of Quebec elects the separatists. They call a referendum on secession. The rest of Canada works itself into a knot over national unity. A big debate that bewilders most foreigners erupts, and the people of Quebec go to the polls to vote to secede. Except that at the last minute, they don't. And everyone goes back to bed as if nothing much happened.
So it goes again. Last week, buried under the speeches and banners of the American political conventions, Quebec voters put the separatist Parti Quebeçois back in office. The new government will now try to lay the groundwork for an eventual vote on secession. The whole drama will almost certainly play itself out like previous acts of Quebec rebellion. Except that this time, it will probably be so low-key, anyone who notices will mutter about children who call wolf too often.
TIME COME AND GONE
The problem the Quebec sovereignty movement has is that even if independence is a good idea, it's one whose time has apparently come and gone. The last time Quebec held a referendum on independence was 1995. I reckoned then - and wrote in my Gleaner column, having just recently started my time as the paper's foreign affairs columnist - that it would be about the last chance Quebec got to secede. The vote was close, coming to within a hair of victory. But it still fell short.
Since then, as I predicted, the demographics have worked against Quebec independence. The declining birth rate of Quebec's pure laine population, those who can trace their ancestry back to the original French colonists of New France, has led the province to rely on immigrants to sustain its economy. And immigrants have less, if any, investment in centuries-old grievances at the English domination of Canada, which followed the British conquest of 1763.
NOT MUCH SUPPORT
Current polls put support for independence at less than 30 per cent among the province's population. The new Quebec premier, Pauline Marois, will try a strategy of provocation to boost this support. She will issue strong demands for more power from the federal government, in the hopes that a closed door will once again enrage people in Quebec.
Her problem is that her party was unable to secure a majority government from the province's voters. Instead, she will need backing from one of the opposition parties. She won't get sympathy from the federalist Liberals. And the soft-nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), while not opposed in principle to a referendum, insists the province has more pressing economic issues on its plate - like balancing the budget and repairing the economy. The CAQ will also block a referendum.
Yet, the Parti Quebeçois' platform maintains a government must consider a referendum if 15 per cent of the province's population petition for one. Hardliners in the party can probably line up that many votes. If Ms Marois is then presented with a demand for a referendum, she will have to either antagonise her own support base by refusing (the legislature must give final approval), or try to press ahead with a referendum. Were she to choose the latter course, her party would risk a defeat so humiliating, it might kill the sovereignty dream for all but the most unreconstructed nationalists.
Needless to say, in response to the Quebec elections, Canada's markets didn't quake as they once did at past surges in Quebec nationalism, and foreign capitals took little notice. It remains to be seen how Quebec's nationalists adapt to this new reality.
John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.