Quebec Faces Yet Another Unclear Choice on its Future

September 11, 1994|By MYRON BECKENSTEIN

On the surface it is a clear choice for Quebeckers and the long Canadian nightmare finally can move toward resolution: Vote for the Parti Quebecois if you want the province to separate from Canada, vote for the Liberals if you don't.

But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?

The opportunity comes tomorrow, when Quebec votes for a new provincial government. The outgoing government is Liberal. The Liberals won last year's national election and still are standing tall in the polls. So this would indicate the Liberals stand a good chance of retaining control of Quebec.

Not necessarily.

Quebec voted overwhelmingly against the Liberals nationally. What they voted for was the Bloc Quebecois, a new creation to get a separatist voice into the national parliament.

Provincially, the separatist organization is the Parti Quebecois and the leaders of the two independence parties -- Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc and Jacques Parizeau of the PQ -- don't get along together all that well.

"Lucien sometimes feels like he's trapped in the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by Parizeau," a Bouchard friend told Maclean's magazine several months ago. "Every time Jacques heads for another cliff, he's forced to sit there quietly, hanging on for dear life and hoping for the best."

Mr. Parizeau was considered something of a death knell when he won party leadership in 1988 because of his hard-line separatist stance and his noncharismatic personality. A natty dresser who, strangely enough, effects Britishisms, Mr. Parizeau replaced Pierre Marc Johnson.

Pierre Marc Johnson happens to be the brother of Daniel Johnson, the current Liberal premier and the man who is fighting to keep the job he inherited in January when longtime Premier Robert Bourassa stepped down.

Mr. Johnson, despite the name, is a francophone, a native French-speaker, as is some 80 percent of the province, Canada's second largest and one representing both some 25 percent of the country's population and a vital link in Canada's stack-of-dominoes provincial geography.

Mr. Parizeau and Mr. Johnson share something else besides a desire for the premiership, and that is a lack of luster. Neither seems to appeal greatly to the voters and, in the absence of charisma, the election may have to be decided on the issues.

The main issue obviously is the PQ desire to make Quebec an independent country. Mr. Parizeau has pledged a referendum on independence within 10 months of taking office.

Another issue is Quebec's economy, which is in worse shape than the overall Canadian economy and not helped by all the uncertainty over Quebec's future.

Lastly, there is the issue that may save voters from having to deal with the other issues: The Liberals have been in power for nine years and people are tired of them. No Quebec government in 35 years has won a third straight term.

The polls are finding that while most Quebeckers plan on voting for the separatists, they don't favor separation. (Many are not even sure what separation means; 33 percent think an independent Quebec would still send members to Canada's national parliament.) A similar referendum in 1980 was defeated 60 percent to 40 percent, and polls indicate a similar tally if one were held now.

Seizing on this oddity, the Liberals zeroed in on separation, warning of what they saw as the consequences of independence. The separatists tried to downplay their baguette et buerre issue. In fact, several news organizations were slipped a letter on PQ stationary telling PQ candidates not to even discuss independence with reporters. But Mr. Parizeau himself couldn't resist informing the electorate. "There are . . . no costs to sovereignty," he said in response to the Liberal claims.

The PQ tried to change the subject and pretend the election was about the economy.

Most observers seem to think the PQ will win easily. Francophones dominate in more than two-thirds of the districts and the heavy English and allophone (other language) vote, some 20 percent of Quebec's 7 million population, is concentrated in just a few districts.

Struggling unsuccessfully to show that it wouldn't be despotic, the PQ has kissed off the nonfrancophone vote. Efforts to get minority candidates were rejected by party hard-liners. The party did manage to attract a good crop of francophone candidates, though, one generally rated better than the Liberal slate, where many possible contenders apparently feared what being sacrificed would do to their resumes or egos.

One television debate was held, the first in Quebec politics in three decades, and its structured format and stolid candidates made it hardly worth the effort. The most interesting comment was Mr. Parizeau's response when asked if winning the election and then losing the referendum would mean the end of the separatism debate. "Absolutely not. The sovereignty of Quebec must be done," he said.

What this means in practical terms in unclear.

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