Canadians move to soothe rifts even before Quebec independence vote
Montreal — A red maple leaf (Canada) painted on her left cheek, and a blue fleur-de-lys (Quebec) on her right cheek, the young Montrealer's faith reflects the politically divided passions at rally after rally across this nation's largely French-speaking province.
"After May 20, my family may be friends again," she half joked.
Even before the "oui" or "non" referendum vote asking for separate status for Quebec, moves are under way to soothe the whitehot social tensions that have divided workers and split many families during the plebiscite campaign.
Church leaders in Quebec City, for instance, plan sermons on community reconciliation.
Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau, who noted that "old friendships chill, ties are broken," asked for an end to the cleavage in families.
An acrimonious referendum campaign that finally put Quebec at the trigger point after two decades of secessionist dreams among a minority of Francophones could force Canada to ask Britain to relinquish control of its Constitution. The Constitution is a law of British Parliament, the British North America Act of 1867. Only Britain can amend that piece of legislation.
The heated campaign has prompted many non-Quebeckers to push for constitutional changes, if only to take the steam out of those pushing for Quebec sovereignty.
Almost all leaders, in fact, are rallying around Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's call for a conference of provincial leaders in July to rewrite the 114 -year-old Canadian Constitution -- whichever way the vote goes.
The May 20 vote puts to the test Mr. Trudeau's vision of a Canada that relishes its historical and cultural ties with both the French and the British. So far polls show the "non" forces winning.
The referendum, however, calls only for a limited mandate to gain independence for Canada's largerst province. Premier Rene Levesque, whose leftist Parti Quebecois (PQ) rode into office almost four years ago on its promise to hold an independence vote, read his own polls last year and opted to ask Quebec's 4 million voters only for approval to negotiate "sovereignty-association." This would make the province a sovereign state that keeps its economic and currency ties with Canada.
A Tuesday vote favoring negotiations to separate would subsequently lead to a second, more clear-cut referendum for full independence, Mr. Levesque promises.
During the campaign Mr. Levesque has drifted even further from his strong stand. He dropped the term "sovereignty-association" from his speeches for the milder goal of "equality."
Ottawa's response has similarly become more moderate. "This debate has given us the will to see that people want changes," said Mr. Trudeau's Justice Minister Jean Chretien.
Western provinces, with share their abundant fossil fuels with the eastern provinces at less than market prices, also are bargaining for more autonomy.
A unanimous and surprising vote by the federal House of Commons May 9 asked, in effect, for Britain to end its control of the Constitution.
Even though the referendum has brought more urgency to constitutional reform, it may make it no easier. Since 1971 a series of Trudeau-led federal/provincial conferences have failed to achieve a formula that would give the provinces -- especially Quebec -- the increased self-government they demand.
While the referendum may break the historic constitutional logjam, it could also mark the end of uncertainty for Quebec's $61 billion economy.
An exodus of Quebeckers has picked up from the approximately 15,000-a-year average between 1971 and 1976 to the more than 37,000-a-year following Mr. Levesque's victory in 1976. This out-migration, however, appears to the leveling off. High taxes and a strong unilingual law -- not fear of independence -- have pushed many people to leave.
Companies here have had a hard time recruiting skilled workers, especially engineers. At the same time, the gap in salaries between French-speaking and English-speaking workers has narrowed dramatically in the last decade. A "non" vote against sovereignty-association could force Mr. Levesque's resignation or at least make him face a tough re-election fight, due before November 1981, against his chief opponent Claude Ryan, Quebec's Liberal Party leader and head of the "non" forces.
A narrow defeat for Mr. Levesque will mean that Quebec's 20 percent Englishspeaking minority swayed the referendum, denying a majority of the French-speaking residents the chance to negotiate for a special status. This denial, say observers, may bring violent reprisals similar to those in 1970.