Near death for a nation Quebec separatists won't stop pushing for special treatment

November 05, 1995|By Myron Beckenstein

FOR CANADIANS, it was the best of decisions and it was the worst of decisions.

The results of Monday's Quebec referendum on seeking independence were comforting to people outside the province, and to a slim majority of those inside, because the Yesses lost and the country was still in one piece. It was the worst of decisions because the vote was so close that the issue remains as alive and threatening as ever.

For Quebec separatists, the reasoning is the same but positions reversed.

"It's a victory for nobody," said Marc Lalonde, a minister under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who battled an earlier separatist rebellion 15 years ago.

That 1980 referendum was defeated 60 percent to 40 percent. After this week's 50.6 to 49.4 vote, another 15-year hiatus is not expected.

Indeed, the results produced fallout immediately. The next day Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau announced he would resign and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said he would act to address Quebec's concerns and grievances.

Both moves were grounded in the referendum campaign.

Mr. Parizeau, who became leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois during a relative doldrum period seven years ago, proved ineffective in battle. It wasn't until he turned the reins over to Lucien Bouchard Oct. 7 that the Yes vote was vitalized.

Mr. Bouchard, the leader of the separatists in the federal Parliament, could replace Mr. Parizeau as premier if he chooses. A charismatic leader, his appeal was only enhanced last year when he won a battle with a flesh-eating disease that led to the amputation of one of his legs.

Mr. Chretien's promise of an offer to Quebec grew out of the profound effect Mr. Bouchard had on the campaign.

Wanting to keep the voters' choice as simple as possible, and hoping to end the constant constitutional fights that have tormented the country for years, Mr. Chretien deliberately avoided making Quebecers any promise of future change as an alternative to separation.

But in the final week of the campaign, when polls indicated that the federal side was in trouble, he gave in and made the commitment.

How much of an effort will be made is still unclear, as is how Quebec separatists will respond to it, though the early indications aren't promising.

Most of the people and many of the leaders of the rest of Canada grew tired long ago of Quebec's continuous demands for unique treatment. They made clear before and during the campaign that they wanted Quebec to stay within Canada but were not prepared to offer any special concessions. It is doubtful that enough minds were changed by last week's close call to alter that view substantially.

As for the separatists, Mr. Bouchard quickly dumped on Mr. Chretien's offer. "Never again will sovereigntists be begging for anything from the rest of Canada," he declared. He said his Bloc Quebecois would remain in Parliament so it could fight against any offers made to Quebec.

Back to the polls

He and Mr. Parizeau made it clear that another referendum is the next step, as far as they are concerned.

"We will wait a bit, but not for long," Mr. Parizeau said. "We won't wait 15 years this time."

It "could come faster than you think," said Mr. Bouchard.

During the campaign the separatists indicated that a 50.1 percent vote in their favor would be enough for them to proceed. A 50.1 vote against them didn't hold the opposite meaning. If at first you don't secede, try, try again.

The separatists' plans for the future are tied to the hope that last week's turnout was not their high-water mark but just another sign of an advancing tide. This may be true. When the Parti Quebecois was voted into office in September 1994, it received 45 percent of the vote, 4.4 percentage points less than its cause received last week.

But the separatists also had all the powers of office to control the referendum and produce the result they wanted.

First, the referendum Mr. Parizeau had promised to hold within eight to 10 months was put off -- as polls kept indicating that independence would lose -- for more than a year in hopes of a better climate.

Then the question put to the electorate was not a simple "Do you want independence?" Instead, the people were given a 43-word question that never mentioned the I-word, talked of something called sovereignty instead and threw in first holding discussions with Canada for "a new economic and political partnership."

What was the likelihood that any meaningful talks would take place? Political leaders in Ottawa and the other provinces said that if they hadn't been in favor of making concessions to Quebec while it was still a province, they certainly wouldn't be in favor of doing so to an independent Quebec.

The separatists kept saying that residents of an independent Quebec still would be able to use Canadian passports and Canadian money; the federalists said this plan was unworkable.

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