Canadian PM attacks separatists

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The Independent Online

Shawinigan, Quebec

It's not the divorce, "it's their proposed conditions for remarriage that insult the intelligence", the Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, told a huge pro-Canada rally this weekend in the region he has represented in parliament for almost 30 years.

Referring to the proposal of the Quebec Premier, Jacques Parizeau, that, after a successful vote for independence in the current referendum, a sovereign Quebec would seek to negotiate a new partnership with the remains of the country it had just left behind, Mr Chretien said the proposal "flies in the face of the most elementary good sense. It is unrealistic and illusory, and would be immediately rejected by the rest of Canada."

The federalists used Mr Chretien's first official foray into Quebec since the referendum campaign began to underline the second half of the national government's strategy to convince Quebeckers to vote "no" on 30 October - a strategy designed to appeal to the emotional side of Quebec's often tempestuous relationship with their mostly English-speaking partners in the Canadian confederation.

The federalists' economic arguments against the separatism of Parti Quebecois were laid out earlier in a tough speech by the Finance Minister, Paul Martin. He told Quebeckers that they would face difficulties in negotiating access to the North American Free Trade Agreement, on top of the penalties the new country of 7 million people would pay in terms of investment, interest rates, currency and debt service.

The separatist leaders, Mr Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, who leads the Bloc Quebecois separatist faction in the national parliament, have been appealing to Quebeckers' sense of pride and destiny to boost nationalist sentiment. At the same time, they have been playing on the insecurity of French speakers about the survivability of their language and culture.

But, as much as Quebeckers may feel slighted or dislike the current federal structure, every opinion poll since the last separatist scare 15 years ago shows they are profoundly attached to Canada, and both the "Yes'' and "No'' sides have devised strategies to exploit this attachment.

The separatists have been trying to say Quebeckers can have the benefits of their own country while retaining their links to Canada through the proposed partnership agreements. The federalist approach is to remind Quebeckers of the contribution they have made to the building of Canada and how well Quebeckers have prospered in the larger entity.