Likely election of separatists in Quebec to throw Canada again into turmoil

September 01, 1994|By Boston Globe

MONTREAL -- In just two weeks, the predominantly French-speaking inhabitants of Quebec will vent their frustration and fury at the rest of Canada in provincial elections that may mark the beginning of the end for the 127-year-old confederation of 10 provinces.

There is little doubt about the outcome of the Sept. 12 elections for the provincial parliament, known as the National Assembly. Every poll, nearly every pundit and most foreign diplomatic observers predict that Quebecers will give the staunchly federalist Liberal Party the heave-ho and return the secessionist Parti Quebecois to power after nine years in the political wilderness.

At the very least, a victory for the Pequistes -- as members and supporters of the separatist party are called -- will mean months, perhaps years, of turmoil that the economically troubled nation can ill afford.

Indeed, the election is a prelude for the real fight over Canada's future. Although the election of a Parti Quebecois government appears inevitable, it is by no means inevitable that independence will follow.

But a Pequiste win guarantees that the old feud between French-speaking and English-speaking Canada will go on with a new vengeance.

"I think it is going to turn very nasty, very fast," said Mordecai Richler, one of Canada's best-known authors and a Montreal native who has written extensively about Quebec politics. "When the smoke clears, Canada may still be intact -- but it will be a terribly debilitated Canada."

The same separatists tried, and failed, to win some form of sovereignty from Canada when the Parti Quebecois -- then under the charismatic Rene Levesque -- last held power in the province, from 1976 to 1985.

But today's separatist drama is being played out in a Canada different from the prosperous, confident nation of 1980, when Quebecers rejected a fuzzily worded referendum calling for "sovereignty-association."

* In 1980, the Canadian economy was booming and a generous federal government was parceling out boons and subsidies to the provinces. Today, Canada is crippled by debt and suffering double-digit unemployment levels at a time when taxes are up and the government is cutting its once-generous programs.

* In 1980, Canada's leader was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, an ardent foe of separatism who commanded enormous respect in his native Quebec.

Jean Chretien, the prime minister of Canada, also is a Quebecer, but he is not especially popular in his home province. Instead of supporting Mr. Chretien's Liberal Party, Quebecers elected a separatist party -- the Bloc Quebecois -- to a majority of the province's seats in the national parliament.

"I don't think the prospects for the survival of an English Canada are very good," said Paul Rutherford, professor of history at the University of Toronto.

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