Why Canada Probably Won't Fall Apart despite Quebec Elections, Separatist Forces Are Weaker Than They Seem

Article excerpt

ON Sept. 12 the Parti Qucois (PQ), a party dedicated to dismembering Canada, won a smashing victory in Quebec's provincial election. Federalist forces surveyed the electoral damage, breathed a sigh of relief, and began to toast their own success.

On Sept. 13 savvy traders on international money markets were so impressed by the election result that they gave the Canadian dollar the best one-day ride against other currencies it's had in years.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

Nothing. This is Canada, home of counterintuitive politics, where things are not quite what they seem.

Agitation for political independence in Quebec has been the norm since the 1960s' great push to modernization. As French-speaking Quebeckers altered the domination of the English-Canadian business class and the Roman Catholic Church, the dream of separation gripped the intelligentsia and the young.

In 1976, Rene Levesque and his separatist PQ took power and tried to lead the province out of Canada. After years of agonizing debate, Quebeckers rejected separation by a 60-to-40 margin in a 1980 referendum. Still, Quebeckers liked Premier Levesque's honest government and reelected the PQ in 1981. The 1980 referendum had dampened enthusiasm for independence; but it did not kill the spirit of dissent in Quebec. The stakes of unity

When attempts by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1992 to change Canada's constitution in Quebec's favor failed, separatist sentiment exploded. In 1980, Canadians met Quebeckers' plea for autonomy with sympathy, and their demands for independence with anxiety and sadness.

Today many Canadians, especially Westerners, think Quebeckers should either stop demanding special privileges - or leave. More English Canadians are saying the national preoccupation with Quebec is stunting Canada's economic growth and political evolution.

Canadian unity stakes rose again in the federal election of 1993. Quebeckers sent a majority of separatist representatives to the federal Parliament in Ottowa. Only a handful of Liberals - including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien - survived this separatist onslaught. The Bloc Qucois (BQ), led by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, sits in Ottowa's House of Commons with the express purpose of tearing the country apart. Last week's vote was supposed to produce a second great shock wave to batter Canada's foundations. The finishing blow, according to the separatists' calendar, was planned for eight to 12 months from now, when PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau and BQ leader Mr. Bouchard together were to convince more than 50 percent of Quebeckers to vote for independence in a referendum.

But the separatist scenario has gone slightly awry. …