TORONTO — SOON, amid autumn's changing leaves, the people of Quebec will go to the polls and, if pundits are correct, sweep to power a revitalized provincial separatist party intent on breaking up Canada to gain Quebec independence.
In the days before the Sept. 12 election, Premier Daniel Johnson - whose Liberal Party favors a unified Canada - needs a political miracle to remain in office.
The Aug. 29 televised leadership debate, the first in Quebec in 32 years, might have provided one. But many analysts said Mr. Johnson needed a clear victory. And he didn't get it.
There was no apparent ``knockout'' to register with the estimated 2.5 million Quebeckers who watched the dialogue. All Parti Qucois (PQ) leader Jacques Parizeau had to do was emerge with a draw to win. He did.
Current polls show the PQ with 47 percent to the Liberals' 44 percent. While this might seem close, the PQ leads by almost 20 percentage points among the province's 82 percent majority French-speaking voters.
Johnson has up to 90 percent of the non-French-speaking vote. But if present trends prevail, the PQ would win 80 to 85 of 125 seats in Quebec's legislature.
Mr. Parizeau has promised Quebec voters that, if he is elected, within eight to ten months he will hold a referendum vote on ``sovereignty,'' the term frequently used by separatists to refer to Quebec independence.
Asked during the debate if he and his party would stop pushing for separation from Canada if such a referendum were defeated, Parizeau stated that he and his party would never give up.
``I think that the sovereignty of Quebec is going to be achieved,'' he said. ``I think it is necessary. I think the people of Quebec, more and more, understand the extent to which it is necessary.''
The irony is that polls show 60 percent of Quebeckers don't have any interest in leaving Canada to form a new country. In 1980, about the same percentage of Quebeckers voted ``no'' to a referendum question on independence put to them by Parti Qucois Premier Rene Levesque.
Conventional wisdom holds that Quebec's majority French-speaking population overwhelmingly favors the radical step of electing a separatist government, not because they want independence, but because they desperately want change. After nine years of Liberal Party rule and enduring long months of 13 percent unemployment, they have had enough.
Most will comfort themselves with the idea that they can rein in the PQ later when the referendum vote is held by voting ``no'' to separation. Will history simply repeat itself and will Quebeckers easily defeat a separation referendum, as in 1980?
``I'm sure most who vote now for a change of government will be saying to themselves, `We're not voting for separation today - we'll be doing that next year,' '' says Claude Gauthier, vice president of research for CROP, a leading Montreal polling firm.
``But that doesn't mean a year from now that the situation won't change,'' he says.
Mr. Gauthier points out that the PQ will control the government and all its resources, focusing them on a campaign to win the referendum. Also, never before in history has Quebec had separatists at a federal level.
With 54 Bloc Qucois separatists representing Quebec in Parliament as the official opposition, the unusual alignment provides an unprecedented opportunity for separatists to work toward their goal by building confrontation with Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government, he says.
``It will be difficult for Chretien to concede any more power to Quebec,'' Gauthier says. ``With growing tension between English Canada and Quebec, the feeling of sovereignty will increase in Quebec - like what happened after the Meech Lake failure.''
Since Quebec's 1980 referendum on separation, there have been two failed constitutional bids to recognize Quebec as a ``distinct society'' in Canada and to grant it greater autonomy. The Meech Lake Accord failed in 1990, and the Charlottetown Accord failed in 1992.
``I'm sure this is what the PQ and BQ are counting on,'' Gauthier continues. ``This election will produce confrontations. And, like Meech, it will bring an emotional reaction in Quebec toward the rest of Canada if it gives no sign of change toward Quebec demands.''
Stephen Scott, a constitutional law professor who has closely followed Quebec's bid for more powers, says confrontation and emotionalism will be more easily generated once the PQ is in power.
``There's been 10 years of mismanaged constitutional crises,'' and the collective resentment remains, says Mr. Scott, who teaches at McGill University in Montreal.
``Voting for the PQ simply to effect change is much more dangerous than the moderates, the general voters in this election, give it credit for,'' Scott says. ``This idea that we'll all vote `no' later is just a bit too convenient. You can't give it nearly the certainty that today's pat assumptions suggest.''