Ottawa — The search for an alternative to separatist sentiment in Quebec, Canada's potential breakaway province, appears to have hit a low point after the resignation from politics of a key provincial figure.
In a grim acknowledgment of failure, Claude Ryan, leader of the Quebec provincial wing of the Liberal Party, early this month surrendered the post he had held for only four years.
Ryan's bowing out represents much more than just a personal defeat. It leaves the province of 6.3 million people without a major provincial party leader committed to keeping Quebec within Canada.
The resignation, resulting from Mr. Ryan's growing unpopularity in his own party, underscores the current disarray of what Canadians call the federalist forces in Quebec - those Quebeckers determined to keep the French-speaking province part of Canada's federation.
This group, which includes not only French-Canadians but also members of the province's English-speaking minority, now must begin anew their long and agonizing attempt to find an effective stance for the Liberal Party in the debate on Quebec's place in this nation.
With Ryan gone, the focus of the struggle that could determine Canada's eventual unity shifts back to the longtime feud between two other prominent Quebeckers - Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Quebec Premier Rene Levesque.
For now, the issue of Quebec separation is quiescent. But who the provincial Liberals pick as a new leader and how the party approaches the issues of Quebec independence will be crucial in the conflict over separation that is certain to emerge again later in the 1980s.
Currently, the provincial Liberals are fundamentally split on how best to oppose the independence movement. On one side are the followers of Mr. Trudeau, head of the Liberal Party nationally, who vehemently opposes Quebec separation. On the other are those, like Ryan, who say that to regain power in Quebec the Liberals must win back some of the pro-nationalist support held now by Mr. Levesque.
''Where a Quebec Liberal Party goes from here is anyone's guess, and a good many Liberals may be guessing along with the rest of us,'' wrote Montreal columnist Gretta Chambers.
Ryan's resignation is the latest step in a drama that goes back to 1976, when Levesque, a founder of the movement for Quebec separation, gained the top office in the country's second most populous province.
Ryan was drafted into politics a few years later as shocked federalists in Quebec looked for someone to lead the opposition against Mr. Levesque's Parti Quebecois government.
A former publisher with little practical political experience, Ryan nonetheless was successful in his first big political fight in May 1980. At that time the Liberals, with Ryan at the helm, came out on top in the landmark Quebec referendum vote, turning back Levesque's major bid to move the province toward independence.
Now, until the Liberals elect a new leader to oppose Levesque on the floor of the provincial legislature, the Parti Quebecois government will have clear sailing. And, with the next provincial election not expected until 1985, it may be many months before the Liberals decide.
There is no obvious choice to take over the party. The most likely candidate is Robert Bourassa, who was premier of the last Liberal government in Quebec from 1970 to '76.
But Mr. Bourassa, who was ousted from office by Levesque, has important roadblocks in the way of any comeback. Many provincial Liberals say he is a has-been. Also, Bourassa might still be vulnerable to charges of political corruption that were used very effectively against him by his opponents in the past.
At the same time, the Liberals in Quebec will have to redefine their position on the central issue of Quebec's national aspirations before another expected push for independence by Levesque.
Ryan's experience shows how easily a Quebec Liberal leader can be whipsawed in the complex currents of Canada's federal-provincial politics. While not a nationalist, he nevertheless sympathized with the desire for more provincial autonomy expressed by French Canadians, who feel they have long been economically and culturally shortchanged in the Canadian federation.
Because of this middle-of-the-road approach, Ryan was attacked by Levesque as a traitor to Quebec. At the same time he lost support from Liberal followers who favored a strong antinationalist position. Partly for these reasons, Ryan was never able to take advantage politically of the May 1980 referendum victory over the pro-independence forces. From the high point of the referendum success, the provincial Liberal Party under Ryan had within a year slid into the doldrums.
That slide allowed Levesque to pull off a remarkable political recovery that saw the once-diminished Parti Quebecois returned to office with a majority government in the April 1981 provincial election.
At that time one of Ryan's colleagues reputedly told the austere and uncompromising intellectual he should ''quit before the party eats you alive.'' Though he held on, Ryan never overcame his image as a pedantic moralist incapable of speaking the people's language. Within a year, his support among Quebec Liberals was so depleted that it became obvious his leadership would not have survived a party convention next month.