Quebec Separatism Again

September 04, 1993

Independence for Quebec, or "sovereignty-association," gripped the imagination in the 1970s and went down to defeat in a 1980 referendum. What resurrected it for the 1990s was the defeat, last year, of the alternative. An accord on constitutional reform for federal Canada lost in referendum, both Canada-wide and in Quebec. That means Quebec's place in the federation is in limbo.

The return to Square One was charted recently when the Parti Quebecois, led by Jacques Parizeau, drafted its platform for a provincial election next year. One point of getting this done was help an allied Bloc Quebecois to seek most of Quebec's seats in the federal parliament this year.

The key to the platform, infuriating old separatist stalwarts, is to guarantee minority language rights for English-speakers. It is the opposite of what Francophone nationalists always wanted. The reason for the guarantee is practical. Mr. Parizeau really does want to lead Quebec to national sovereignty and to pass international scrutiny on human rights. So, a sovereign Quebec would guarantee English-speaking Quebecers the right to use English in school, parliament, the courts and health services. The platform seeks to reassure the many Quebecois who stand to lose jobs in the federal civil service by promising comparable work in Quebec's civil service.

Fortune favors the Parti Quebecois. Disenchanted Quebecers are looking for a way to vote for neither of the above (Liberals or Conservatives) when federal Prime Minister Kim Campbell calls a federal election in the next couple of months. The Liberal provincial prime minister, Robert Bourassa, has been in office a long time, signed the accord that failed last year and has a recurrence of cancer. So the party of federalism has a leadership crisis. That may help Mr. Parizeau next year and offer voters a new referendum on sovereignty in 1995.

And so the issue that was settled for a generation in 1980 may have been settled only for 15 years, during which the world changed, the Quebec role in North American defense lost

importance, Quebec developed a French-speaking business class, Quebec nationalism abandoned its leftist zeal for a broader appeal, and Canada entered a free trade zone with the United States and -- pending ratifications -- Mexico.

There are a great many questions that need answering about sovereignty for Quebec, including its relationship to the rest of Canada, its ability to employ the disemployed federal civil servants and the fate of Canada's Maritime Provinces. The odds are that these questions will indeed get their airing and that this whole debate will be held all over again, so soon after being settled the last time.

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