Canada riven by regional upstarts: When a disenchanted electorate goes to the polls tomorrow, the votes will expose the fault-lines dividing the country

IT IS Friday, three days before Canada's general election, and Preston Manning, bespectacled leader of the Reform Party, is addressing a rally on a rain-soaked football field in Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. He concludes by imploring British Columbians one final time to give him their vote. If they do, he declares, the result 'will generate a shock wave that will rattle the teeth of every politician from here to the east coast'.

Only rattle? While the Liberals, now in opposition, seem set to win, the other mainstream parties are braced for decimation tomorrow night. More than that, Canada's future as a united nation will once again be put in doubt.

Behind the predicted revolution are two upstart regional parties, neither of which is even running nationwide races: the western-based Reform Party, a right-wing populist movement; and the Bloc Quebecois, campaigning on a platform of independence for Quebec. If the polls have it right, one or other will form the next official opposition in Ottawa.

'It will be a fundamental realignment of the Canadian electorate,' says Norman Ruff, professor of political science at the University of Victoria. 'Really, it's mind-boggling.'

There is plenty to astonish. Liberal leader Jean Chretien may become Prime Minister but lose his seat to a Bloc candidate in Quebec. Kim Campbell, leader of the incumbent Conservatives, who took over from Brian Mulroney as Prime Minister only in June, might lose in Vancouver. Her party could see its showing in the 295-seat parliament slashed from 169 to about 35. The New Democratic Party, traditionally strong in the West, might drop below 12 seats and lose its official party status.

But the Bloc and Reform look set to win around 50 seats each. Their influence may be considerable, especially if Mr Chretien fails to win an absolute majority. (If he does lose his seat he will borrow one from some unfortunate in his party.) For English-speaking Canadians, the concern above all will be the separatist Bloc contingent, whose main objective is not the good government of Canada but its break-up.

Driving the Bloc's success is Lucien Bouchard, 54, a former Conservative minister who resigned from the Mulroney government three years ago, in protest against the terms of a constitutional package designed to appease separatist Quebecois and keep the province in Canada. A former ambassador to France, his rhetoric is persuasive, often passionate.

'English Canada doesn't know who we are and they don't know what we want,' he explains. 'If they want the country of their dreams, a country with a strong central government, they must understand we also want the same thing. Therefore we need two political structures, two sovereignties.'

This may be the only national Canadian election the newly founded Bloc will fight. If all goes to plan, its success tomorrow will be emulated next year by its alter ego at provincial level, the Parti Quebecois, which is expected to win back power next spring and promises a referendum on independence thereafter. If Quebecers say yes to secession, then the bomb that has ticked beneath the Canadian confederation for more than 30 years will finally go off.

Secessionist sentiment in Quebec remains hard to gauge, but Yves Martin, chief strategist for Mr Bouchard, calculates that just over half of the province would vote for independence. 'I am quite confident that a referendum will give us a positive vote for sovereignty,' he said last week. Once independence was declared, negotiations would follow on the details of separation.

It comes only as an afterthought to Mr Martin that secession would also mean departure from the Commonwealth. 'Oh, yes, the Queen. I suppose we would send her a letter to say we don't like the situation as it has been and that we are forced to abandon it.'

Swelling the ranks of the Bloc are Quebecois who may not be secessionists, but who are extremely fed up. They are fed up with the recession, fed up with the failure of successive attempts to settle the Quebec issue and fed up with the apparent powerlessness of Ottawa.

The depression in the province is nowhere more in evidence than in Shawinigan, 100 miles east of Montreal. Two pulp and paper mills send dark plumes of steam skywards, but other sites are abandoned and local unemployment is at 17 per cent. It happens also to be in Mr Chretien's constituency.

His local campaign manager, Michel Beliveau, recognises the rebellious mood. 'The population is disenchanted, the recession has been going on too long. People see the government not doing a thing and the old parties not doing a thing. They want a change,' he says. The Reform Party has also fed off popular frustration.

Preston Manning, 51, a mild-mannered evangelical Christian, has struck a chord, portraying himself as the lone leader willing to tell it like it is. He pledges to rid Canada of its deficit, running at over dollars 30bn ( pounds 15.6bn) annually, and advances a new approach to Canadian federalism, under which every province, Quebec included, would be treated equally in a single country. If Quebec were to persist in seeking a special status then, regrettably, he says, it would have to leave.

It is a position his supporters appreciate. 'Either the French should be a full partner or they are on their ownsome,' echoes Trevor Murphy, 27, a computer salesman attending the Victoria rally. He is ardent, too, about the deficit. 'I'm part of Generation X and we are going to foot the bill. I want to see the debt come down and these guys are promising to do it.'

A hard line on immigration is at once Reform's trump card and Achilles heel. A pledge to cut almost by half the number entering the country has an obvious appeal for white Canadians hurt by recession. But it has also triggered accusations of a hidden racist agenda. As supporters left the Victoria rally on Friday, they met a barrage of Nazi-saluting protesters.

If Reform and the Bloc do as well as expected tomorrow, Canada as we know it does not come to an end. But such a result would expose the social and cultural fault-lines which divide the country east to west. 'It will be a new phase and the beginning of a new chapter,' says Professor Ruff. 'The next page will be written in Quebec in next year's referendum.'

(Photograph omitted)

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