Quebec Elections Rekindle Debate about Separatism

Article excerpt

Quebecers, most of whom speak French and have a history and tradition of their own, see themselves as a people with a distinct political personality and the right to self-government. The specter of separatism has loomed for decades and a provincial election this month may push it to the forefront -- if the economy doesn't intrude.

As part of their seemingly epic quest for an ethnic identity, voters in Quebec head to the polls this month in an election that once again is stirring the pot of separatist sentiment in Canada's most populous province.

On the face of it, the voters will decide on Sept. 12 the makeup of the 125-seat National Assembly, Quebec's provincial parliament. From that vote will emerge the province's new premier: either the incumbent, Liberal Party leader Daniel Johnson, or his opponent, Jacques Parizeau, leader of the Parti Quebecois.

But the real issue -- the issue that is making this such a closely watched election inside and outside Canada -- is the renewed push to establish an independent nation of Quebec. Parizeau has vowed that, if elected, he immediately will extract from the National Assembly a resolution calling for another referendum on sovereignty to be held within the next 10 months.

According to the polls, Parizeau is likely to win the election. Although the figures showed the PQ losing a bit of its strong lead during the month of August, virtually no one, except perhaps Johnson and his associates, believes the Liberals will be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat on election day.

"The slippage is not significant says Michel Simard, public relations director at Leger and Leger Inc., a Montreal polling firm that is keeping close tabs on the campaign. On Aug. 19, the firm released a poll that gave the Pequistes, as PQ members are called, 47.9 percent of the vote, with 45.2 percent for the Liberals and 13.2 percent undecided. Because of the heavy francophone representation in the voting districts outside Montreal, however, the PQ lead translates into 83 National Assembly seats, which are 20 seats more than the 63 required for a majority.

While the outcome of the vote seems certain, the issue of sovereignty under a PQ government is far less settled. William Metcalfe, director of Canadian studies at the University of Vermont, predicts without even a hint of doubt that "the PQ will lose the referendum."

Simard is less certain. While he acknowledges that 57 percent of Quebecers oppose sovereignty, he argues that the sentiment could change in 10 months. "The referendum could win if the Parti Quebecois adopted an appropriate strategy," he says. In recent years, "Quebecers have felt rejected by the rest of Canada, and the separatist sentiment has shot up to 60 percent. If the PQ could provoke that sentiment again .... For me, I don't know. I'm not in the secrets of the gods' "

Tension between English and French speakers in Quebec has existed for more than two centuries. In 1760, Britain conquered French Quebec and held it while battling revolutionaries in the colonies to the south.

"The nub of the quarrel is simpler than the infinite complexity of the constitutional negotiations makes it seem," wrote Michael Ignatieff in his book Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism, published this year by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "Six million French-speaking North Americans -- les Quebecois -- think of themselves not just as a people with a language, history, and tradition of their own, but as a nation, that is, as a people with a political personality and a right to self-government. They have conceived of themselves this way, not just since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, but ever since Canadian Confederation in 1867. The word `nation' has always figured prominently in their public language."

The latter-day sovereignty movement -- Quebecers prefer the term "sovereignty" to "separatism" for reasons no one can quite explain -- has its roots in the Quiet Revolution, although the cry for a sovereign Quebec is more than a century old. …