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Canada's perpetual state of crisis Quebec: Secession is not going to happen in the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean the province's politicians are going to stop talking about it.


A constitutional crisis happens now and then in the United States, but Canada seems always to be in the midst of one. The biggest threat to constitutional peace in Canada, however, is fast losing its potency: The nation is not going to split up, because Quebec is not leaving.

At the same time, constitutional turmoil in Canada is not about to end. It is, in fact, chronic, and has been at least since 1982, when Canadians brought their made-in-Britain constitution home and made it their own. Both the national government in Ottawa and the governments in the 10 provinces often use constitutional impasse as a bargaining ploy in all kinds of policy discussions.

Quebec politicians are expert at it. The question of Quebec's status, its role in Canadian culture and government, has been, is now and will remain at the center of constitutional impasse. The province where French language and heritage predominate thinks of itself as a "distinct society," and it yearns to have that recognized as a constitutionally protected fact.

"The issue of Quebec's place in the confederation is an ongoing question, and there is a feeling we haven't been able to resolve it," says constitutional law professor Armand deMestral of McGill University in Montreal. The hope of the central government in Ottawa, he adds, has been that the issue would gradually go away. "I don't believe it has happened yet. Quebecers see themselves, in the foreseeable future, first and foremost, as Quebecers."

From here on, though, the dark cloud of Quebec secession is not likely to hover menacingly over the constitutional debate about the nature of Canada's structure as a nation.

That is mainly because of two defining events: a historic opinion by Canada's Supreme Court in August, and the election of a new provincial legislature in Quebec last week.

The court's opinion set the ground rules for separation by Quebec, if the people of that province definitely want it. But the Quebec election outcome probably means that the process will not begin at any foreseeable point, because Quebecers are not as enthusiastic about secession as some leaders had hoped.

From this side of the border, it seems strange indeed that a modern, united nation would still be debating the bonds of federation. The question was settled here in bloody fashion through the Civil War that ended more than 133 years ago with the Confederacy's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia. No U.S. state could even think today of what Quebec has regularly contemplated.

Almost no one who follows Canadian affairs seems to believe that politicians in Quebec will stop talking about secession, or stop brandishing it as a challenge to the central government in Ottawa.

But the credibility of such talk and such challenges may have been destroyed, or nearly so, by the combination of the Canadian Supreme Court's August pronouncements and the voting results in Quebec at the end of last month.

In its opinion, the Canadian court said bluntly that Quebec has no legal right, either under the Canadian constitutional charter or under international law, to declare independence on its own. It must be negotiated, if it is to occur at all, the court said. That was only an advisory opinion but it is taken to be the last word on the subject.

Most important, perhaps, the court said the process of %o negotiating Quebec independence could not begin until Quebecers had voted by referendum in favor of it by a "clear majority." (Two prior secession referendums have failed.) The court did not say what the proportions would have to be to make a majority "clear."

Quebec's separation-oriented government was re-elected last week, but with nothing like a "clear majority" of popular support. It survived in power with just 42.7 percent of the total popular vote, compared to 43.7 percent for the opposition Liberal Party. (The Parti Quebecois did win a clear majority of seats in the province's National Assembly -- 76 to the Liberals' 48 -- because seats are filled in districts, or "ridings.")

There may be no correlation between a popular vote on legislative candidates and any future vote on Quebec independence, but the Parti Quebecois' less-than-majority popular vote is widely seen as a forecast of the fate of the separation question.

"A mandate was given to the government of Quebec to continue what it has been doing, but that did not include calling a referendum [on secession]," suggests a Canadian political scientist, Barry Cooper of the University of Calgary. There will be no referendum, he adds, "for the foreseeable future. The only way to alter that would be some incredibly stupid moves by the federal government."

An American scholar on Canadian affairs, Colorado College political scientist Curtis Cook, is even more emphatic: "Sovereignty for Quebec is dead. It was already dead, but it took this election for people to realize it."

More cautiously, McGill law professor deMestral suggests that the Canadian Supreme Court decision last summer, together with political developments, "restrain the capacity of a sovereignist government, or any other government, to launch secessionist movements."

For years, he noted, Quebec politicians have been preaching, as an article of political and constitutional faith, that the people of Quebec have a fundamental right to have their own nation.

What the Canadian Supreme Court did, deMestral recalls, was to say that is untrue.

The separatist premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, "attempted mask that" basic point in the campaign just ended, "but it is there, on paper" in the court's opinion, deMestral says.

Bouchard's principal rival, Liberal leader Jean Charest, made fear of secession the centerpiece of his campaign.

While Canadian analysts dispute whether that fear had the effect of holding down the Parti Quebecois' vote, even Bouchard was willing, when the results were in, to concede that "Quebecers told us the time is not favorable for holding a referendum."

The central government's leader, Premier Jean Chretien, was thought to have committed a major blunder at the outset of the Quebec election campaign when he brusquely suggested that Quebec would get no constitutional concessions from Ottawa -- a comment that seemed sure to stir up secessionist sentiment and embolden Bouchard and his followers on that issue.

"The list of Quebec's traditional demands have been met," Chretien told the Montreal newspaper, La Presse, in late October. "The Constitution should not be a general store."

But in the wake of the vote denying Bouchard majority support, Quebecers seemed not to have been stirred up by that. Though preferring to keep the Bouchard government, they told pollsters DTC repeatedly during the campaign -- and by impressive percentages -- that they did not want a new referendum on secession.

The result: they had it both ways, but they did not end constitutional impasse.

Pub Date: 12/07/98

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