Contrary Quebec

September 18, 1994

The Quebec electorate -- with an 80 percent turnout of eligible voters, Marylanders should notice -- threw the ins out of office and put the outs back in last Monday. That's all the voters meant to do. Unfortunately, this required giving power to a provincial government sworn to hold a referendum on sovereign independence for Quebec within ten months.

There is no indication the voters want that. They voted 60 to 40 against it in referendum just 14 years ago. Sentiment has probably moved since then toward Canadian federalism, not away.

The popular vote in the province Monday was virtually a dead heat, with four-tenths of a percentage point more for the Parti Quebecois (PQ) than for the Liberals. A last-minute swing toward the Liberals reflected resistance to bringing up sovereignty yet again, not endorsement of the nine-year Liberal hold on the premiership -- first under Robert Bourassa and then under Daniel Johnson.

Because the Liberal vote is bunched in Montreal and along the U.S. border, the popular dead heat translated to a dominant 77 seats for the PQ and 47 for the Liberals in the 125-seat National Assembly. The PQ can legislate anything it wants.

Premier-elect Jacques Parizeau, an economist who served as finance minister in the last PQ regime, is pledged to make one of the new assembly's first acts a declaration of Quebec's intent to leave Canada. He would hold a referendum on that intent within 10 months.

It is easy enough to assume that the referendum will fail 2-to-1. But that ignores the dynamic of events. It is possible that rage elsewhere in Canada against Quebec pretensions will surface, Canadian tempers will fray, more Quebecers will be alienated -- all this due both to Mr. Parizeau's use of power and the ability of Western English-speaking Canadians to offend Quebecers.

The Parti Quebecois is the new government of Quebec. Its sibling Bloc Quebecois is the official opposition in the Canadian federal parliament in Ottawa. If the Quebec voters are not really separatist (and right now they are not), they have assuredly fooled other Canadians.

And they have to accept the consequences. Canada is in for a full-blown constitutional-secessionist crisis that most Canadians and most Quebecers do not want. Too bad there wasn't an easier way to throw out the Liberals.

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