Quebec Leader Upbeat on Independence Vote, but May be Whistling in Dark


As Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau was getting ready to leave a meeting of all the Canadian provincial premiers recently, one of his fellows said he hoped they would see him again next year.

Nothing personal, but Mr. Parizeau hopes they won't.

Instead, he hopes that by this time next year Quebec will be just about ready to declare independence from the rest of Canada.

In the election campaign that swept his party into office a year ago last week, Mr. Parizeau pledged to hold a referendum on independence eight to 10 months after victory. Last week he set a date for fulfilling that pledge: Oct. 30.

Not quite within the time frame promised, but Mr. Parizeau had his reason for the delay: In the face of negative poll numbers, he was searching for a referendum wording that would guarantee him the result he wanted. What he finally came up with was announced a few days before he set the date:

"Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

The June 12 agreement was among three similarly inclined parties: his provincial Parti Quebecois (PQ), the federal-level Bloc Quebecois and a small provincial party.

But even with the advantages of being able to load the question and pick the most auspicious date, the road ahead still isn't as clear as Mr. Parizeau could hope. One vote he certainly can count on not getting is that of his fellow Quebecer Jean Chretien, who spends most of his time in Ottawa being prime minister of Canada.

(Since 1968, except for three brief interregnums, Quebecers have sat in the prime minister's chair, a fact which doesn't fit well with the separatists' basic complaint that Quebec must have independence because it is an underpowered, oppressed province that will never get its due within the Canadian confederation.)

Foes of separation were quick to point out that something is missing in the referendum question: the word "independence." This, they are pretty sure, is deliberate, since poll after poll had found that most Quebecers would vote against independence, just as they did in a referendum in 1980.

Mr. Parizeau, who would have preferred a straight question, modified his stance and is now talking independence with an asterisk. Among other things, Quebecers are promised they still could keep their Canadian citizenship and that they could continue to use the Canadian dollar as their currency.

"If they asked the question clearly, they would be clobbered," Mr. Chretien said. "So they are hiding the truth.

"They're trying to cover up by saying, 'Oh, no, no, it's not really separation, because we'll still have a passport, we'll have Canadian currency, we'll have citizenship, we'll have economic union, we'll have political union'," he said.

"It's not up to them to decide. It's for the rest of Canada to decide."

Mr. Parizeau also says a sovereign Quebec would retain its current borders and would apply for membership in the major organizations to which Canada belongs, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Presumably, all these points would be among those raised in the referendum-promised "formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership."

The referendum does not say that the rest of Canada has to accept the Quebec offer before an Oct. 30, 1996, deadline, just that the offer has to be made, for secession to then be declared.

This is no oversight either, for the rest of Canada has made it clear that it is in no mood, after years of continuing debate over Quebec's role and demands, to make any new concessions now.

Mr. Chretien and all of the premiers have said they would not negotiate any kind of partnership outside the existing confederation.

"If the people of Canada were not able to agree to a special status for Quebec as a province of Canada, why would anybody think they would do it for a Quebec that was a separate nation from Canada?" asked Newfoundland's Clyde Wells.

Nor would they automatically grant Quebec entrance into the internal trade agreements that it would need.

"It's not because we wouldn't do it for Quebec," said Manitoba's Gary Filman. "It's because if we did it for a sovereign Quebec, we would have to do it for the United States, Mexico and any other country with which we have open trading arrangements."

Ditto for NAFTA. And the United States agreed. "It's a complicated legal question which would take a great deal of time resolve and it is certainly not automatic," U.S. Ambassador James Blanchard said early this year.

Economically, this isn't good news for Quebec. One study said separation could cost a newly independent country $3.4 billion a year until things settled down. Another said a breakup probably would lead to hard times for all of Canada that would rival the Great Depression. Mr. Parizeau called this report "exaggerated."

There is also a legal fly in the ointment. Early this month, a Quebec Superior Court judge ruled it would be unconstitutional for Quebec to declare independence even if the referendum won.

The judge didn't block the referendum, though, and Mr. Chretien said this was for the best. One gets the feeling he expects the "no" vote to win and the separation urge to be buried, or at least put back into the box for a while.

Two polls taken after the referendum wording was announced brought conflicting results. One had the Yeses winning with 50.1 percent. The second had the Noes triumphant, 54 to 46.

If Quebecers don't really want separation, why did they vote for Mr. Parizeau in the first place? For one thing, what they wanted was to get rid of the Liberal provincial government then in its second term, and the PQ was the alternative, prominent warts and all.

For another, the vote for the PQ wasn't as overwhelming as its 77 seats in the 125-seat legislature would indicate. The lopsidedness was a result of the district-by-district breakdown; overall, the PQ won only 45 percent of the votes and the Liberals 44.

Jean-Marc Leger, of the Leger polling firm, which also conducts polls for the Quebec government, said, "Quebecers will be the most surprised people in the world if the vote is 'yes'."

Myron Beckenstein works on the foreign desk of The Baltimore Sun.

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