Quebec: Has Separatism Been Frozen Out?

The most important images of Quebec's great freeze may turn out to be those of 10,000 Canadian army troops on TV. Sporting Canada's maple leaf flag on their shoulders, they helped old folks from unheated homes, rushed pregnant women to hospitals, and cleared ice-encrusted tree limbs from roads. They were a powerful subliminal advertisement for Canadian unity.

The troops, many of them French-speaking homeboys, may just have put Quebec separatism on ice. Even before the emergency, polls showed only 35% of Quebeckers in favor of full sovereignty. More than 60% say they don't want another "neverendum" vote on independence. The cooling in ardor since 1995 is striking. Then, the separatists came within a whisker of winning with a record 49.4% of votes in a referendum.

STEEP CLIMB. Charismatic Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard hasn't thrown in the towel. He still vows to mount a third secession referendum if his ruling Parti Quebecois (PQ) wins provincial elections that he may call as early as this fall. He, too, made nightly TV appearances and seemed very much in charge. "He's definitely someone who looks better when he manages a crisis," concedes Clemens Mayr, a lawyer who chairs the federalist Group of 100.

But the separatists face a steeper climb now. Higher taxes, strict language laws, and anxiety about capital flight if independence comes scare off foreign and Canadian investors. As a result, the province is trailing as the rest of Canada sees sparkling growth. Bouchard was forced to impose painful and unpopular measures to cut Quebec's budget deficit. And the national government has made shrewd concessions to keep Quebec in the fold. "For the first time, Ottawa has come up with an antiseparation strategy," says Denis Massicotte, publisher of Le Courrier parlementaire newsletter.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a Quebecker himself, has reached out to the turbulent province. To allay French-identity concerns, Ottawa accepted a constitutional amendment to permit separate French- and English-speaking public-school systems in Quebec. The feds also gave Quebeckers more power over employment training and immigration.

English Canada also has tried to fix another longstanding gripe of Quebeckers, that their distinctiveness isn't sufficiently acknowledged. Quebec's French-speakers have reason to feel embattled. Despite laws that mandate bilingual labeling on consumer products and French instruction in schools, French is now the mother tongue of a record low 23.5% of Canadians. Still, in September, all nine Premiers of English-speaking provinces met in Calgary and in a statement recognized "the unique character of Quebec society," including its legal system and culture. Bouchard boycotted the meeting and dismissed the declaration as meaningless.

NO TAXES? Faced with such obstinacy, some hard-line federalists are trying to build a legal case against separatism. On Feb. 16, Canada's Supreme Court will consider whether a unilateral declaration of independence would be legal. A lower court is being asked to decide whether an independent Quebec could legally collect taxes. The instigator of both cases: lawyer Guy Bertrand, who co-founded the PQ in 1969 but became a federalist two years ago.

In the end, a small group of moderates will decide the outcome of the long debate over Quebec's status. Those voters, about 15% of the electorate, favor wide autonomy--but strong economic links with Canada. After the federal army came to Quebec's rescue, they may reflect that there's more to belonging to a country than just dollars and cents.

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