Canadian separatism on the decline in Alberta, Quebec

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Canadian separatism is running on less steam these days - at least for the moment.

In Quebec, Premier Rene Levesque and his governing separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) maintain the general support of the people - but it is being forced to make some tough decisions in tough economic times.

And to the west, in resource-rich Alberta, the upstart Western Canada Concept (WCC) party has been fractured by a number of events - leaving serious doubt that the party will survive.

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Split by internal dissent and with no ''anti-Ottawa'' issue to capitalize on, WCC received a devastating blow in Alberta's recent provincial general election. Not only did the party fail to elect any members, but also it lost its electoral toehold in the Alberta legislature, a seat it won handily in a by-election last winter. The WCC placed a distant third in the popular vote.

Only a year ago, the separatists were taking advantage of some deep divisions between Ottawa and Alberta (such as the federal government's controversial energy policies and a bitter battle over Canada's new Constitution) and a general feeling the Progressive Conservative premier had ''lost touch'' with Albertans. They promised a stiff challenge to Alberta's established political parties.

But over the summer the premier, Peter Lougheed, quickly mended his political fences and the Ottawa issues faded, leaving the separatists out in the cold. Like many others, Mr. Lougheed suspects Western separatism is a dead issue.

''I don't see those issues involving federal-provincial relations as tense or as difficult, but I could always be proven wrong,'' he says. ''Most Albertans are not only committed to Canada but want to see Alberta in the full mainstream of Canadian life.''

On the other hand, Peter McCormick, a political science professor at Alberta's University of Lethbridge, feels it was the party that burned itself out.

''This doesn't preclude the idea that 8, 10, or 15 years from now, another separatist movement couldn't rise from the ashes of what is left of this one,'' he says. ''The sentiments that gave rise to Western Canada Concept will remain around in latent form in Alberta.''

For the most part, those sentiments reflect an underlying feeling that western Canada doesn't have a meaningful say in Canada's federal system, a system based on representation by population. Of Canada's 282 federal seats in the House of Commons, the more heavily populated provinces, Ontario and Quebec, elect 170 members, while the western provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, elect only 77. This means to some westerners that their concerns might easily be pushed aside if they conflict with those of central Canada.

In Quebec, meanwhile, a couple of years after the PQ narrowly lost a provincial referendum to proceed with ''sovereignty-association,'' Quebec separatism has been overshadowed by the harsh realities of economic recession.

Guy Antoine Lafleur, a political science professor at Quebec's Universite Laval, notes that Quebec separatism is an issue as far as the Parti Quebecois is concerned. ''(But) I'm not quite sure if it's still an issue for the population in general. . . . at the present moment the people of Quebec are much more preoccupied by the economic crises.''

Michel Nadeau, financial editor of Montreal's Le Devoir, estimates about one-third of Quebec's population is still interested in ''sovereignty-association,'' while about two-thirds support the Parti Quebecois because it appears ''the PQ is the best political party in the province right now to handle the economic problems.''

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