Quebec gets concessions from uneasy Canada

Ottawa - Jean Chretien, under pressure to prevent Canada from falling apart, has announced three measures aimed at stopping French-speaking Quebec from leaving the rest of the country.

The Prime Minister made his proposals on Monday night after suffering blistering attacks in Parliament and in the media for not moving soon after separatists came close to winning a referendum on 30 October.

"These three initiatives the government will undertake in the coming days are a tangible response to the desires expressed by my fellow Quebeckers during the referendum campaign," Mr Chretien said. The proposals were immediately blasted by the Parti Quebecois government in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois, its separatist ally in the federal parliament, and the western Reform Party as unacceptable. "What we have on the table is clearly not enough," Louise Beaudoin, Quebec's intergovernmental affairs minister, told a Montreal news conference.

Mr Chretien said government was introducing a motion in the Commons recognising Quebec as a distinct society with a French-speaking majority. A bill would be introduced to give four regions a veto over any constitutional amendment - Quebec, Ontario, the Atlantic region and the Western region - thus meeting Quebec's demand to regain a constitutional veto without granting that right to Quebec alone.

Thirdly, the government would begin decentralising some of its functions, starting with getting out of the business of manpower training. "This is just the start of a process of change, not the outcome. What is important is that changes be innovative and realistic and respect the will of Canadians."

The separatists came within a percentage point of winning last month's referendum. A poll in Saturday's Globe and Mail said 54.8 per cent of Quebeckers would vote to leave Canada if a vote were held now.

Since the referendum, the Bloc's charismatic leader, Lucien Bouchard, has said he would seek the premiership of Quebec, from which he could launch another referendum in a couple of years. Rejecting Mr Chretien's proposals outright, Quebec's Ms Beaudoin said the distinct-society resolution was "just words" giving Quebec no real power and the proposals on worker training fell short of demands made by earlier Quebec governments.

Reaction from Quebec's Liberal Party leader, Daniel Johnson, who was official leader of Canadian unity forces during the referendum campaign, was reserved. Mr Johnson commended Mr Chretien for taking a "first step", but added that a resolution adopted by Quebec Liberals on Sunday called for Quebec's distinct-society designation and veto to be entrenched in the constitution. That would give them much more political weight.

Michel Gauthier, the Bloc's No 2 called the veto proposal "completely senseless". The Reform Party said Mr Chretien's policy was a rehash of past, failed ideas.