Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec has put the rest of Canada on notice to overhaul its constitution to suit Quebec within two years, or watch Quebec hold a plebiscite on independence in late 1992. The point is that Mr. Bourassa and his ruling Liberal Party are not the separatists in Quebec; they are the federalists, who want to remain in Canada. And if they are the people giving ultimatums likely to offend the rest of Canada, the movement toward independence is strong indeed.
Quebec's opposition Parti Quebecois would set about achieving sovereignty immediately on taking power. It is ahead in the polls. Mr. Bourassa's position is the moderate one. This lurch of public opinion in a separatist direction is Quebec's response to rejection by the rest of Canada when two provinces last year refused to ratify constitutional amendments known as the Meech Lake accord. That package been agreed by the federal and provincial premiers in 1987, amending the constitution of 1982 that was never ratified by Quebec.
Mr. Bourassa's terms are now higher than those that were rejected. A committee of his party proposes revisions giving Quebec exclusive authority over its own agriculture, communications, energy, environment, industry, language, unemployment insurance and public security. This formula remains to be approved by the whole party in March. The ultimatum is likely to be delivered formally to Ottawa in May or June. Mr. Bourassa is inviting debate now, ahead of the game.
Quebec's new intransigence flows equally from the response of other Canadians to Meech Lake and to its own surge of confidence, lacking a decade ago, that Quebecers can do everything a modern nation requires. Fragmentation of Canada, however, would create uncertainties for all the nations of North America, including the United States, the remainder of Canada and Quebec. It would make orphans of the poorer Canadian provinces, particularly the Maritimes. It would jeopardize the North American free trade agreement and raise doubts about Arctic air defense.
Mr. Bourassa is really begging to have his independence bid thwarted by the generous understanding of his fellow Canadians outside Quebec. But many Canadians have lost sympathy for Quebec. Too many of them are prepared to say good riddance. Quebec may need Canada more than it admits; Canada needs Quebec to remain whole.