Poll may hasten Quebec separation: The general election next Monday could be the last for federal Canada, writes Rupert Cornwell in Montreal

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The Independent Online
THIS time, one senses, it's for real. Courteous and smiling, Lucien Bouchard emerges from a Montreal television studio after his umpteenth campaign interview.

If he is tired, he does not show it. He talks of the future, of a Quebec with a United Nations seat and its own embassies, in an economic community with English-speaking Canada, in the Commonwealth, and in a new grouping of Francophone countries.

A pipedream? Even a year ago, it would have seemed so - but no longer. If next Monday's Canadian elections follow their appointed course, an independent Quebec could even arrive with the millennium, seven years away.

The sceptic is allowed a long and weary sigh. Federal Canada's obituary has been written a dozen times before; Quebec separatism has haunted the country for close on three decades, but sweet reason (some would say plain inertia) has kept it together.

But the election next Monday will challenge all those assumptions. Rejection by Anglophones and Francophones alike of last year's referendum on a new constitutional settlement may have exhausted even Canada's repertoire of political contortions. But from the debris grew the Bloc Quebecois, which Mr Bouchard leads, the first specifically nationalist Quebec party to fight a federal election. Today it is on the brink of victory. It is as if the SNP was about to take three- quarters of Scotland's seats at Westminister.

Canada must deal simultaneously with a second novelty: the Reform Party, reverse image of the Bloc. Part Ross Perot, part National Front, and very much Anglo backlash, the Reform Party is as dominant in the west of the country as the Bloc in Quebec.

A week before its most fascinating election, federal Canada is trapped between two hostile armies to the east and west. The invaders' weapons are ballots, not bullets. But the system of politics by compromise is in unprecedented danger.

True, the old Liberal Party of Pierre Trudeau still defends the tottering federal ramparts. By default, the Liberals are already the certain winners next week, although they may have to settle for a minority of the 295 seats in parliament. But the ruling Conservatives, carrying the extra burden of a sour economy and a dismal campaign by the Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, are being routed in east and west alike. They may end up in fourth place. In Quebec especially, the implications are chilling. After all, Preston Manning, Reform's leader, does not want to break away from Canada - but Mr Bouchard does.

Polls suggest the Bloc will capture at least 50 and possibly 60 of Quebec's 75 seats in the federal parliament. Thanks to a deal with the Parti Quebecois, the Bloc's alter ego at provincial level, the Conservatives won 63 Quebec seats in 1988. This time, they can count on two or three at best. The Liberals expect to win a dozen or so in the cosmopolitan Montreal area. Elsewhere, all bets are off. Even the prime minister-in- waiting, Jean Chretien, the party leader and himself a Quebecker, has the fight of his life to retain his seat at St Maurice.

'It's not a question of animosity towards the rest of Canada, it's simply that we have our own culture, our own vision of things,' says Daniel Latouche, Professor of Political Sciences at McGill University, and a sympathiser of the Bloc. A soft autumn morning spent around the town of Joliette, in rich farming country an hour's drive from Montreal, only serves to prove it.

The shops, the malls, the landscape even, could be Minnesota or Maryland - except that everything is written in French, even poulet frit Kentucky. The lure is not Paris: a proposal for dual citizenship with France a few years ago was laughed out of court. It is simply Quebec's wish to be master of its own destiny, a French speaking nation in North America. 'The people want their own country,' Mr Latouche explains. 'It may be poor, inconsequential, even dull, but no matter.'

But in this shrinking world, countries perforce have links with others, and there the problems begin. The very extent of the Bloc's support implies that it means different things to different people. Marcel Cote, once a senior aide of former the Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, and a veteran observer of Quebec politics, reckons that the pro-independence hard core is no more than 20 to 25 per cent of voters. He guesses that a larger group, perhaps 45 per cent, supports 'souverainete-association', the latest addition to the separatist dictionary, which connotates a shared currency and maybe a shared army with the rest of Canada. The remainder favour either a looser confederation, in which Quebec stays part of Canada, or maintenance of a manifestly bankrupt status quo.

Mr Bouchard's skill is his ability to please everyone. Re-assurance, not rabble-rousing, is his hallmark. Victory is already in the bag, so why jeopardise it with a rash remark or an excess of precision? Last week he made his pitch to the immigrant communities of St Denis, one of Montreal's poorest neighbourhoods. An independent Quebec, he promised, would be no 'ethnic island'. All comers were welcome, as long as they accepted that it functioned in French.

Once in Ottawa, those gifts of soothing will be doubly vital. So complete does the Conservative debacle appear that Mr Bouchard could, quite conceivably, find himself head of the second largest party in the federal parliament. What price Canada then, when the mandate of Her Majesty's loyal opposition is to destroy the constitutional structure of the country? Mr Bouchard says he will play the game by the rules. But what game?

Quebec holds its elections next year, when the Parti Quebecois will almost certainly triumph. In 1995, the province will hold a referendum on sovereignty. If it passes, Mr Bouchard will have to negotiate the divorce settlement with a hostile Anglo Canada. He sees the Bloc's presence in Ottawa as a means of giving the rest of the country 'two years' advance notice'. But, warns Mr Cote, 'it takes two to tango. The Anglophones will not wear it; for them Quebec will be trying to have its cake and eat it.' He predicts '10 or 20 years' of negotiating. But this time, who knows?

(Photographs omitted)