Why The Quebec Vote Was Prelude, Not Prologue

Supporters of Canadian unity are almost euphoric following the unexpectedly narrow victory of the nationalist Parti Quebecois in Quebec's Sept. 12 elections. While the PQ captured 77 of the 125 seats in the Quebec National Assembly, it finished in a virtual dead heat with the ruling Liberal Party in the popular vote. The outcome boosted the Canadian dollar to a six-month high. And it led Prime Minister Jean Chretien to confidently predict that "Canada is here to stay," despite the PQ's vow to make Quebec independent.

But much of the positive spin may simply be wishful thinking. Canada may be in for the most brutal trial in its 127-year history as PQ leader Jacques Parizeau follows through on his pledge to once again put Quebec independence up to a popular referendum. The debate will spill over into English Canada, get very nasty, and leave permanent scars--even if the referendum is defeated.

Voting it down is far from a sure thing. While polls show that only 40% of Quebeckers back independence, the referendum battle is just beginning, and the PQ has never been in a stronger position. While the PQ has been elected twice before, never has it been so dominated by hard-line separatists.

WIDENING POLARIZATION. Despite the close popular vote, the separatists will command a 30-seat majority in the National Assembly, giving them enormous power to make the case for sovereignty. At the same time, the PQ's federal wing, the Bloc Quebecois, will be advancing the separatist cause on the national stage in Ottawa. With all this, "I don't think there's any question they have a chance to win the referendum," worries Michael Walker, president of the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute--a think tank.

In contrast, the federalists are in a far weaker position than in 1980, when the first referendum on Quebec independence was defeated. In 1980, English Canadians set up committees to tell Quebeckers how much they were loved, and then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made big compromises to meet Quebec's demands for more autonomy. That was critical to turning the tide against the referendum. But today, with Quebec and English Canada far more polarized, Chretien can't offer such concessions.

BLUNT WORDS. That's because over the past four years, English Canada has rejected two efforts to revise the Canadian Constitution to meet Quebec's demands. This time, as British Columbia Premier Michael Harcourt said recently, English Canada will be telling Quebec: "You're in or you're out."

In this environment, the PQ leadership "will do what they can to offend English Canadians," predicts pollster Angus Reid. They are already threatening to boycott Chretien's effort to overhaul Canada's social-welfare programs, a quest as important to him as health-care reform is to President Clinton. But if the Quebeckers get tough, English-speaking politicians may retaliate by calling for a drastic cut in the size of an eventually independent Quebec.

The battle looming is nightmarish for business leaders, who fear that uncertainty will poison their operating environment. That's why the Conseil du Patronat, an association of Quebec's major employers, is already urging the PQ to get the referendum out of the way within the next 8 to 10 months. Given the close Sept. 12 election returns, however, the PQ is now far more likely to delay the referendum until late 1995, giving the party more time to campaign. Even if it goes down to defeat, Quebec and all of Canada are in for a rough ride until then.

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