Quebec: Once More to the Abyss

July 31, 1994

The most portentous election in Canadian history was the Quebec provincial election of 1973. On the surface, nothing happened. The ruling Liberals increased their lead. But the formerly ruling Union Nationale capsized in the wake of the upstart Parti Quebecois. A party dedicated to sovereign independence for Quebec became the official opposition. Ever since, Quebec voters have been unable to throw the rascals out of power without provoking a federal crisis.

Three years later, the PQ came to power, campaigned for sovereignty and held a referendum on it in 1980. Sovereignty lost. The Liberals soon returned and ousted the PQ. That should have settled matters for a generation. It did not.

Once again it is time for Quebecers to kick out the Liberals, who have been in provincial power too long. That is the issue likely to decide the provincial election that Premier Daniel Johnson has called for Sept. 12.

But Jacques Parizeau, the Parti Quebecois leader who seems destined to succeed Mr. Johnson as premier, promises that his victory would mean another referendum on Quebec's status next year. Once again, Quebecer and not Canadian voters will be asked to decide the relation of Quebec to Canada (a good thing, because there's no telling what voters of other provinces would decide).

One result of the French language upheavals of Quebec is that there is a substantial French-speaking business class that employs accountants to cost the effects of sovereignty and doesn't like the results.

Polls suggest Quebec voters want a new government, which means the PQ, but opposes the sovereignty that is the PQ's reason for being. They are likely once again to put the PQ in power in order to reject its purpose in referendum. But assumptions can go wrong.

What if Mr. Parizeau in power proved persuasive? This is our continent, too, and they are playing with its stability. Quebec needs to find a way to change government without destroying Canada. In most democracies, voters want change more often than revolution. Institutions should be designed to oblige them.

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