Separatist party poised to conquer Quebec

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The Independent Online
THE last time the separatist Parti Quebecois was on the verge of winning power in Quebec 14 years ago, Canada's largest bank hired a fleet of armoured cars to move securities from their vaults in Montreal to the perceived safety of Toronto.

The Parti Quebecois is again poised to win in the provincial election on Monday, but no armoured cars have been hired because few people believe the party, and its hardline separatist leader, Jacques Parizeau, will be able to wrest Quebec out of the Canadian federation and turn it into an independent country.

Nevertheless, the financial markets, the business community, the federal government in Ottawa and ordinary Quebeckers are bracing themselves for the economic and political turbulence that is expected to follow the vote.

Although the polls indicate the Parti Quebecois will win a clear majority because of its strong preference among rural French-speaking Quebeckers, the party's sovereignty proposals have the support of only between 35 and 40 per cent.

Recognising the unpopularity of its independence option, the PQ has campaigned only on a promise of providing 'good government', promising Quebeckers another chance to decide their constitutional future in a referendum to be held within the next year.

That approach has struck a responsive chord with a majority of Quebeckers, tired of the provincial Liberal government. The Liberals, led until January by Robert Bourassa, have been in power for nine years but have not been able to keep their promise to create new jobs. Although the new Liberal leader, Premier Daniel Johnson, has campaigned as a strong federalist and warned Quebeckers about the cost of separatism, voters appear to accept that Monday's vote is only about choosing who will hold provincial power within the broader Canadian federation.

But for many, there is a sense of deja vu and apprehension about repeating history. The PQ, under the late Rene Levesque, won the provincial election in 1976 but lost a referendum in 1980 which sought support for sovereignty association, a concept in which Quebec would be sovereign in most areas but would share an economic association with the rest of Canada.

Now, a radicalised Parti Quebecois is advocating total independence - necessary, Mr Parizeau argues, for Quebeckers to develop fully as a people. But Quebec has also changed since the earlier battles and Mr Parizeau's references to developing Quebeckers as 'a people' appeals only to the 'old stock' (vieille souche) French Canadians who represent about 80 per cent of the population.

It is anathema to the other 20 per cent, English-speaking Quebeckers who decided to stay in the province after the first PQ victory, and a million new immigrants who have mostly allied themselves with the English community. This group is strongly committed to Quebec remaining within Canada and will vote for the Liberals, widening the gap between an increasingly multi-cultural Montreal and the rest of the province.

The expectation of a PQ victory is also being blamed for an increase in interest rates and a drop in the value of the Canadian dollar. That trend has moderated in recent weeks, however, as polls indicated that support for the PQ will not necessarily translate into support for independence options in the promised referendum. Nevertheless, English and French- speaking Quebec businessmen have got together to oppose the PQ and are preparing to campaign for federalism in the referendum.

One of them, Brian Garber, summed up their pitch: 'Why gamble with our future? A united Canada is the only sensible course for business, job preservation, preventing the flight of capital and for providing stability. A PQ government will be anti-Ottawa at the worst possible time in the business and job-creating cycle.'

Even though Monday's vote may not mean that Quebeckers are preparing to break up Canada, support for independence has risen in response to failure in 1990 and 1992 to amend the constitution to give Quebec more powers. Faced with Mr Parizeau's new challenge, the Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, and his Liberal government in Ottawa will probably abandon a promise made during the last federal election to put the constitutional wars on ice for a few decades. Instead, the federal government will be forced to join the referendum fight.