Provincial leaders look for a strategy to fight Quebec secessionists Series of public hearings across Canada is decided

September 21, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CALGARY, Alberta -- Summers are fleeting in Canada, and so are respites from the great national debate over whether Quebec's separatists can break the country apart by leading their French-speaking province to independence.

Already last week, it was gray and damp and the temperature was in the 40s when the elected leaders of the nation's 11 English-speaking provinces and territories gathered in Calgary at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They came hoping to find a common strategy for fighting the Quebec secessionists, met behind closed doors for nearly 12 hours and left with an agreement only to hold more meetings -- a series of public hearings all over the country before Christmas, asking any Canadians who care to attend what they think ought to be done.

The rather extraordinary gathering -- as if the governors of 49 states were to discuss amending the U.S. Constitution -- was surrounded by the theatrics associated with what is sardonically referred to in Canada as the "national unity industry." It is an aspect of political and intellectual life that has flourished since the separatist movement was born about 30 years ago.

Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow, for instance, opted for doomsday rhetoric. "It's two or three minutes to midnight," he said before the session began, referring to the prospect of the separatists' winning the next referendum on secession. Canadian television geared up to broadcast continuing coverage the event, bringing in talking heads to discuss whether Quebec is a "distinct society" within Canada or merely a "unique culture." Two score Canadian journalists volleyed questions at the politicians in English and French.

The meeting was instigated by the expectation that the separatist premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, will call a provincial election as soon as next spring. If he wins a second term -- and he is ahead in the polls -- Bouchard plans to ask Quebecers once more to vote on secession, the third such ballot since 1980. The last time, in 1995, 49.4 percent of the voters opted for separation, and, ever since, Canadian federalists have been arguing over the best way to avoid defeat in the future.

Not surprisingly, Bouchard turned down an invitation to come to Calgary. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, widely criticized for underestimating the strength of the separatists in the 1995 referendum, was pointedly not invited.

The public hearings will focus on possible government restructuring or constitutional amendments guaranteeing that the Quebec government could do pretty much what it wanted to preserve its French language, protect its culture and maintain its French-based civil law without serious interference.

Such changes would blunt Bouchard's separatist appeal -- or so goes the theory. But English-speaking Canadians remain deeply suspicious of anything suggesting special rights for Quebec and have killed similar proposals.

The provincial leaders here papered over their own disagreements on the subject by releasing a statement of principles deliberately vague enough to be embraced by everyone.

"We're not saying anything specific, I don't believe, other than 'We love you [Quebec] and we want you to stay in Canada,' " said Ontario Premier Mike Harris.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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