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Quebec is not another country yet: Canada's constitutional wrangles will go on, but the alternatives are worse, says Jonathan Eyal

IN RETURNING an avowedly separatist party to power in the Canadian province of Quebec, have the Quebecois elected a new government or a new country? The answer lies in between: most of those who voted for the Parti Quebecois (PQ), by a narrow majority, had no interest in secession; they wanted to turf out a nine-year-old Liberal administration.

Even so, Quebec may end up as an independent state, despite the current wishes of its population. The very least that will happen is another year of constitutional wrangling, despite the federal government's efforts to concentrate on the economy.

As with every nationalist struggle, the dispute between English-speakers and Francophone Canadians is as much about myths and symbols as realities. The reality is that when the Canadian Confederation was established in 1867, French-speakers constituted half of all Canadians; today they are only one-quarter.

As a minority, though, Canada's Francophones have not done at all badly. The country's political institutions are a confusing hybrid, neither a fully centralised government nor a fully functioning federal state. But Quebec has retained its special identity and vibrant French culture partly because it is in Canada; the other French-speaking communities of North America have been absorbed into the United States melting pot.

For the past 30 years Canada has promoted the use of French in all federal institutions. Government offices in Vancouver, thousands of miles from the nearest French-speaking habitat, will happily serve citizens in French, even though the appropriate second language there is Chinese.

Nor have the federal authorities been slow to react to Quebec's needs. Ottawa is currently paying a young officer to study the implications of setting up independent armed forces for Quebec. Would the British or French defence ministries subsidise a comparable study for Scotland or Corsica?

Quebec enjoys a guaranteed number of seats in the House of Commons, and the current Prime Minister, Foreign and Defence Ministers are all Quebecois. So are three of Canada's most distinguished former politicians, Georges Cartier, Wilfred Laurier and Pierre Trudeau. Many minorities would be happy to suffer such 'discrimination'.

Canada's problem is not its federal arrangements - power-sharing and all the other constitutional devices. It is that such mechanisms have all been tried and found wanting.

Between the Twenties and Seventies no fewer than nine attempts to reform the constitution failed because of Quebec's demand to be equal and special at the same time, to remain a nation state within an increasingly multi- ethnic country. In that time, Canada has failed to generate either a nationalism that transcends the linguistic divide, or an Anglophone identity to counterbalance that of the Francophones. The federal government has been unable to act as either a united voice or a genuine arbiter, and the result has been an interminable constitutional dispute.

To be sure, many of the Quebecois do feel Canadian, and many English-speakers are genuinely proud of a country which, because of its cultural linguistic diversity, remains the most urbane in North America.

A sense of dual identity even cuts through families. The brother of Daniel Johnson, Quebec's outgoing Premier led the province under the PQ banner in the Seventies. And Jacques Parizeau, the winning nationalist leader, is a graduate of London University, a confessed admirer of the Queen, and hired an English-speaking governess for his children, while espousing the sole use of French in the province.

THIS sense of dual identity makes nationalism tolerable, but also potentially destructive. During the election campaign, the PQ promised that even after separation the province would keep the Canadian dollar and its guaranteed markets - all the prosperity with none of the liabilities. It also affirmed that, while Quebec could secede, its Cree Indians should not have the same right. Canada is divisible, Quebec apparently not.

The province's nationalists know that a referendum on separation today is guaranteed to fail, as did a previous attempt in 1980. Their tactic is to create as many disputes with the federal government as possible, to persuade the Quebecois that independence - or 'sovereignty' as it is gingerly called - is the only option.

When Quebec's National Assembly meets, Premier Parizeau is likely to push through a 'solemn declaration' setting out the province's aspirations and inviting the federal government to negotiations.

If Ottawa refuses, it will play into Mr Parizeau's hands; if it talks about frontiers and the division of foreign debts and assets, a furious dispute is unavoidable.

Either way, Mr Parizeau must hope that by the time he holds his promised referendum on 'sovereignty' next year, so much bad blood will have flowed that its results will be a foregone conclusion. The Quebecois have only elected a provincial government; they may yet end up in another country.

Ottawa can extricate itself only if it appeals to the Quebecois over the heads of their present leaders, and only if its allies around the world react prudently. Unlike his predecessors, President Francois Mitterrand has shown no interest in flirting with Quebec nationalism; this should continue. The world should also begin to take Canada's international role more seriously: nothing is more debilitating for the federal leaders than the feeling thattheir vast contributions to peace-keeping are regarded as irrelevant.

Quebec's problems can be solved only by the Canadians themselves, but the message of Quebec applies to many other states. Despite Yugoslavia, nationalism remains appealing, if only because every nationalist movement believes itself to be unique. The task is not to eradicate such feelings but to manage them with minimum resort to violence.

Canada may be condemned to years of constitutional disputes. But as long as they are not bloody, they may well be the best outcome for a state at once young and burdened with its history.

The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

(Photograph omitted)