Quebec yesterday took the first formal step towards independence from Canada, but in a form that would retain strong links between the two.
The provincial government, led by Premier Jacques Parizeau, formally began its campaign to take the province out of the Canadian federation by introducing legislation in the Quebec National Assembly setting up a referendum on independence on 30 October. The tabling of the referendum law was preceded by a declaration about the inevitable destiny of a Quebec people persecuted by the English majority in the rest of the country, a statement designed to build emotional support for the separatist cause which was introduced in a televised ceremony.
The declaration claiming that Quebec is a sovereign country was promoted as the preamble to the proposed constitution of an independent Quebec.
Faced with consistent evidence in polls and other forums that a majority of Quebeckers retain a strong attachment to Canada and are unlikely to support outright separation, the Parizeau government has attempted to inject a measure of ambiguity into the issue.
The referendum question tabled yesterday asks Quebeckers if the province should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership.
Mr Parizeau was forced to dilute his independence proposals earlier this year after a near-revolt within his Parti Quebecois. His principal political allies argued that a referendum on the simple question of Quebec independence was certain to be defeated, dealing a fatal blow to the sovereignist cause. They pushed for delaying the referendum and demanded that proposals for separation be modified to include provision for continuing links with the rest of Canada.
The proposed legislation tabled yesterday outlined a hybrid in which a sovereign Quebec would have the power to make all laws, levy all taxes and conclude international treaties but Quebeckers would have dual citizenship, would continue to use the Canadian dollar and hold Canadian passports. Mr Parizeau is also proposing a joint political and economic institution.
The new proposals reflect the intensive public-opinion polling in recent months which showed that a pure independence question would probably be defeated in a 60-40 vote, almost exactly the vote on a previous referendum in 1980. The promise of sovereignty with some form of economic and political association had pushed support up to about the 50-per- cent level.
Quebec federalists were quick to criticise the Parizeau proposals for their lack of realism. "You cannot break up a country and think things will continue to remain the same," the Quebec Liberal leader, Daniel Johnson, said. Pointing out that Quebeckers were among the principal founders of Canada, Mr Johnson said that "Parizeau is trying to take Canada away from us".
Mr Johnson will head the umbrella committee for the 'No' side in the campaign, which will also include business groups. The federal government's strategy will be to convince Quebeckers they are being asked to vote for separation and there will be no deals on joint citizenship.