Quebec vote brings separation closer

THE DREAM of an independent nation of Quebec seems certain to be revived today as voters in this giant province go to the polls in an election that is predicted to hand a huge victory to the sovereigntist Parti Quebecois.

Dream, that is, for some. Make that nightmare for ROC, the acronym commonly used here for the "Rest of Canada", which finds itself once more shut out, a disenfranchised witness to a political agony that for two decades has threatened to break apart a confederation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and north to the Arctic, which still has the Queen as its head of state.

And it is a replay of a familiar nightmare too for the minority anglophones who account for just 17 per cent of the seven million people who live in Quebec. In the past 20 years, as the secessionist debate has waxed and waned, many of the province's English speakers have upped and left in despair.

Polls can be wrong. But barring the unexpected, the Parti Quebecois, led by 59-year-old Lucien Bouchard, the incumbent provincial Premier and fiery hero of Canada's francophone community, will triumph today over the opposition Quebec Liberal Party headed by 40-year-old Jean Charest.

Canada will not fall apart overnight. But a victory for Mr Bouchard will open the way for him to call one more referendum - the last was in 1995 - on whether Quebec should go it alone as an independent country. The bigger the margin of his win, everyone agrees, the sooner that referendum is likely to come.

Militants among the Bouchard faithful are already preparing for battle next year in the probably unrealistic hope of forging their new nation in time for the millennium.

"A country for 2000", is the motto that has been heard whispered at the back of some of Mr Bouchard's more incendiary election meetings. The leader himself, however, has been playing a more cautious, and more canny, game.

That is because the politics of this race are complicated in the extreme. In a logic-defying paradox, the proportion of Quebecers who want secession seems to be on the wane. The province will return power to Bouchard in the knowledge that he is committed to nationhood. And yet 70 per cent of Quebecers also say they do not want another referendum.

Mr Bouchard, whose hero status comes in part from a terrible encounter he suffered in 1994 with a flesh-eating infection that robbed him of his left leg, has tackled the conundrum with tricky semantics. At different turns, he has evoked the ultimate solution of secession only later to promise to work for a new federal formula that will deliver new powers to all the provinces while preserving the confederation.

With more than half an eye on the so-called soft nationalists, a pivotal group of voters who hope vaguely for independence some far-off day, Mr Bouchard has evoked what he calls a European Union model for Quebec, in which the province would remain tied to the rest of Canada but would reserve the right to exercise crucial sovereign powers.

It is a strategy, however, that Mr Charest has scorned as a smokescreen. In recent days, he has attempted to warn Quebecers that a vote for Bouchard is a vote for separation. "From that moment on, there will be an irreversible process to separate Quebec from Canada," he declared last week. "From there on, we lose total control of events - all the levers, all the cards are in their hands."

While campaigning on Saturday in Mont-Joli, Mr Charest spotted twin girls in the crowd. It was the ideal "baby opportunity", but with a twist. "Those two twin sisters are a little like the image of Quebec and Canada," he said. "It's like they're being told that as of Monday they have to be separated, that they're not made to live together, that their interests are so different, we'll never be able to reconcile them."

The irony is that Quebec is a quasi-nation already. It has its own diplomatic relationship with France and even has distinct immigration policies. If a foreigner wants to settle in Quebec, getting papers from Ottawa is not enough. You must get them from Quebec City also. This is the case in no other province.

Pivotal in the next few months will be the fate of an agreement reached this summer by the provincial premiers, dubbed the "social union". This seeks to give the provinces the right to opt out of social spending programmes funded by Ottawa. They could still take federal funds for social policies, such as healthcare and education, but spend it as they wish.

In what some see as an elaborate game of poker, Mr Bouchard may be banking - probably correctly - on Ottawa rejecting the social union pact. That would be his chance to stoke the anti-federalist fires in Quebec and go at once for a referendum. In the 1995 referendum, the separatists won 49.5 per cent of the electorate.

For ROC, the spectacle of Quebec once more plunging itself and the country into the constitutional abyss is both infuriating and wearisome. There is a sense, almost, of Quebecers playing with the fate of the whole country for the fun of it. "Sometimes they're in, sometimes they're out, but mostly they just want to shake it all about," wrote Mark Steyn last week in the National Post.

The temptation always for English-speaking Canada is to say: "Fine, clear off then". What a relief for the folks of Vancouver no longer to have theirbreakfast cereal described in both English and French. But in losing Quebec, Canada would lose a quarter of its population, a huge chunk of its economic base, and surely also the most culturally alive corner of this mostly empty land.

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