Canada reels over Quebec revelation

A new book has rewritten the agenda for the election campaign, reports David Usborne
Montreal - "Merci Dieu pour Monsieur Parizeau," the Ottawa journalist muttered in an awful French accent. Voicing gratitude towards the former leader of the Parti Quebecois has been quite the theme here in recent days. But not for hisold comrades in the Quebec sovereigntist movement. They are cursing him.

Only the most deeply buried marmot in Canada's remotest reaches can have missed the brouhaha caused by Jacques Parizeau with leaks last week from his book on sovereignty, to be published today. In it, he appears to suggest that in 1995, when Quebec came within a few thousand votes of approving independence, he was plotting an instant unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

Never mind that the author says the excerpts were misconstrued; his protestations have been unconvincing. All over again, Quebec is torturing itself about its fate, and the rest of Canada, bewildered and not a little irritated, finds itself once more dragged into the mire.

All this while Canada is in the midst of an election campaign - voting has been set by Jean Chretien, the Prime Minister, for 2 June - that was meant to be about everything but the status of Quebec. That was indeed the case for the first ten days. Jobs, healthcare and taxes were the issues - and the campaign was threatening to shatter even Canada's boredom barometer.

Instead, it is suddenly jammed with intrigue and unexpected volatility. The suggestion of a UDI plot has caused such a flap because, in presenting the referendum question to Quebecers in 1995, Mr Parizeau and his party partners pledged to spend many months, even a year, negotiating some kind of friendly partnership with Canada before finally casting off from the wharf. Or so everybody thought.

Now, hindsight is spotlighting other events that seem to stand up Mr Parizeau's "Great Game". Days before the October vote, for instance, the defence spokesman of the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois sent letters to Quebec-born soldiers in the Canadian armed forces urging them to join a Quebec army once independence was declared.

It was hours before the vote, moreover, that Quebec's deputy premier, Bernard Landry, wrote to foreign ambassadors in Ottawa suggesting that their governments get ready to deal with an independent Quebec. Huge financial manoeuvres were afoot to support the Canadian dollar.

More urgently, the Parizeau affair could have far-reaching consequences. It dropped like a bomb at a time when the Bloc Quebecois, the official opposition in Ottawa that has the separation of Quebec has its sole aim, was already showing signs of vulnerability. If the Bloc loses ground on 2 June, the confidence of the sovereigntist movement could be severely sapped. A good showing, however, would probably speed the advent of another Quebec referendum in the next two years.

Partly, the Bloc is suffering because the man who led it to such success the last time, in 1993, Lucien Bouchard, has taken his skill and charisma back to Quebec City. The current Bloc leader, Gilles Duceppe, does not approach Mr Bouchard for popular appeal.

And then along came the UDI controversy. It has triggered an avalanche of comments such as this from Jean-Paul Murray, a francophone voter from Hull, just across the border from Ontario in Quebec, outside Ottawa. "It just shows you that you can never, ever believe any word that the sovereigntists tell you. In 1995, Parizeau and Bouchard lied to Quebecers, they tricked Quebecers, they duped Quebecers".

Mr Murray spat out his words after being barred from a Duceppe press conference in Hull's Maison du Citoyen. A committed federalist, he would never have voted for the Bloc, anyway. The danger for Mr Duceppe, however, is that he will lose the so-called "soft nationalists", those who may have voted for independence for Quebec in 1995 but who are still somewhat afraid of it.

Polls released this weekend showed early signs of damage. An Angus-Reid poll for CTV showed Bloc support slipping fast in Quebec to a level of 36 per cent amongst decided Quebec voters - a full 13 points beneath what it achieved in 1993. The poll had Mr Chretien's ruling Liberal Party edging past the Bloc for the first time in very many months with 38 per cent.

The affair is also good news for Mr Chretien in one very critical respect. In spite of great political risks the Prime Minister concluded after the close-shave of 1995 to forge a so-called Plan B for Quebec, one that actually dealt with the possibility of an eventual "Yes" win. Specifically, he asked the Supreme Court of Canada to rule on the legality of any UDI by a single province. Suddenly, it looks like a prescient move indeed. The ruling is expected later this year.

Today, meanwhile, is an important day. Mr Parizeau will be holding a press conference to launch his book and expound on its contents. Oh, and tonight the party leaders have their live television debate.