Semi-Sovereign Doesn't Count

September 12, 1995

Quebec's separatist provincial government kept its promise and delivered a referendum on sovereignty for Quebec voters to decide Oct. 30. Because the issue has been a steady loser in polls, Premier Jacques Parizeau made it as weasel-worded as possible. A ringing call for independence this is not; it is apologetic and ambiguous.

Voters will be asked, "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

This implies that Quebecers can somehow be independent and still part of Canada, perhaps share the Canadian dollar and Canadian passport, yet still say they have an independent country. It begs the question whether the rest of Canada would agree to Quebec's unilaterally rewriting the Canadian constitution, which is what "a formal offer. . . of a new economic and political partnership" seems to mean.

It's implying that sovereignty wouldn't really be so abrupt, so final, so bad, after all.

Actually, should this referendum pass, no one knows what it means. It has no legitimacy outside Quebec in federal Canada. Yet federal Canada would be unwise to ignore it and probably would accept that it means something. What, exactly, would have to be worked out, a tortuous process of constitutional revision that Canadians and even Quebecers have already indicated they are sick of.

More likely, this referendum will fail. The weasel-wording is based on lack of confidence that it could pass if it said what sovereignty means: Full independence, the real thing, which Mr. Parizeau's Parti Quebecois always said it wanted.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a respected Quebecer, called the referendum a "one-way ticket to separation" that would fail. But public sentiment at the moment seems split.

It is unwise to assume the outcome of an election before an intense campaign has worked its effect, as the Baltimore municipal primary reminds us. But Mr. Parizeau is bringing this to referendum only because his party promised and not because of any enthusiasm for the cause or distress at being Canadian that is manifest at this time.

Tremendous changes have occurred in Quebec Province and for French-speakers throughout Canada in the past three decades. The best bet is that the majority of Quebecers are proud of those changes, of being Quebecer and of being Canadian, and wouldn't give up any of that. Mr. Parizeau has taken that bet.

Quebec voters won't be voting on undefined "new partnerships," but on sovereignty, up or down; whether to be in Canada, or out. Mr. Parizeau wrote his question so as to disguise that. But he can't fool the people whose Yes vote he seeks.

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