PRIME MINISTER Jean Chretien, the Quebecer holding federal Canada together, has reopened the debate on Quebec sovereignty just when the separatist Quebec premier, Lucien Bouchard, was hiding the issue for two years while gearing the economy up to it. Mr. Chretien is right to be pro-active and not merely reactive.
When Quebec's referendum last October defeated separatism by less than one percentage point, creating a sense of inevitability, federal Canada had no position. What was the legal standing of the referendum? Quebec's government said it would guide the Quebec National Assembly. Federal Ottawa was unclear.
Mr. Chretien's government has now broken the silence. His justice minister announced that Ottawa would intervene in a court case challenging Quebec's right to secede and that Canada's constitution (which Quebec never ratified) and courts must be respected. More informally, Mr. Chretien said that a decisive majority of a consultative referendum might be respected but 50 percent plus one vote would not suffice. In short, Canada would have as much to say as Quebec about any breakup.
This was unwelcome to Mr. Bouchard, who was trying to pretend the issue did not exist while putting his province in order. He has enlisted federalist and separatist leaders of business and labor in supporting deficit reduction and budget paring. He wants to restore business confidence in Quebec before another attempt at sovereignty in two years.
But previous dramas left big questions unanswered. One is Quebec's fair share of Canada's huge federal debt. Another is borders. Most of Quebec, the lightly populated but resource-rich north, was never French Canada but was transferred to the province in 1897 and 1912. The argument that the north should adhere to Canada in a split relates to Native Americans whose agreements are with federal Canada not Quebec, and whose rights flow from the federal not Quebec constitution. They would secede from a Quebec that seceded from Canada.
It is not Mr. Chretien's tactless intervention that casts a pall on Quebec's and Canada's economic future but the lingering doubt Mr. Bouchard keeps alive. He cannot expect that relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada are for Quebec alone to decide. It's his cause, and he cannot deny adversaries the right and duty to talk about it.
Pub Date: 5/20/96