Quebec Separatists Keep Up Pressure For Independence

Non-French Quebeckers worried about rights

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FOR Bosnian refugees attending a French language class here for new immigrants, Quebec's sovereignty vote last week hit too close to home.

''I already voted in a referendum in Bosnia, and a year later the war started,'' says Elmir Kvrgic. ''I'm afraid such a war could happen here.''

''No,'' his Quebecker instructor explains. ''In Quebec we have soft nationalism. It could never happen here.''

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Quebec's Oct. 30 sovereignty vote appeared to settle the question against independence by just over 1 percent of the vote. But nationalists insist that their narrow defeat is only fuel for a new vote, which could come quickly.

''We're gearing up for the next vote,'' says Gilles Grenier, president of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in Quebec City. ''We have momentum now.''

''By the year 2010, Francophones will be less than 50 percent of the province,'' he adds. ''I grew up next to a family with seven children. The family on the other side ... had nine. [Francophones are] numerous between the ages of 40 and 55, but there's an age pyramid. If we don't succeed in reversing the assimilation of French into English culture, it's over. We must finish this debate before 2006, because after that it's slow assimilation and French will last here only as folklore.''

According to a poll last week after the referendum by the Quebec daily Le Soleil and Radio-Quebec, some 73 percent of Quebecers want their provincial government to participate in negotiations to reform Canadian federalism. Should these talks fail, 49 percent say they want Quebec to call another referendum on sovereignty. At present, a second referendum during the same government mandate is forbidden by provincial law.

But PQ officials insist that this law could be changed. An alternative scenario, they say, would be for leader of the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), Lucien Bouchard, to accept the premiership of Quebec and call a snap election to endorse his leadership and then be free to call a new referendum.

''Bouchard is the most popular man in Quebec. He will help us win our third referendum,'' says party activist Jean-Pierre Cyr. ''Some 75 percent of students voted for sovereignty in school straw polls. They will be with us for the next referendum.''

View from the other side

For the province's 900,000 English speakers, some 13 percent of the population, the prospects of a new referendum are daunting. Spokesmen for Anglophone groups say they have seen a continual degradation of their rights and that many are considering moving out of Quebec.

''People here are very anxious and talking about leaving,'' says Elizabeth Patterson, an Anglophone activist in Barachois, a town on the Gaspe Peninsula that voted ''no'' in last week's vote.

''It's a painful time and a very divisive time,'' she adds. ''No one should view this as a victory....''

Many Anglophone families in this area came from the Channel Islands or from loyalists demobilized from the British Army after the fall of Quebec in 1759.

''Most Anglophone families have been here 200 years ... We have a fierce loyalty to this place,'' says Ms. Patterson. ''But many feel that we will become hostages if negotiations don't go well for Quebec.''

For Anglophones as well as Francophones, jobs are a key concern in Quebec, where unemployment is 11 percent. There are some 18 communities with a strong Anglophone presence along 250 miles of coastline here. Twenty years ago, about 25,000 Anglophones lived in the Gaspe Peninsula; today, fewer than 10,000.

''Many feel that if you don't have a French name, you can't get jobs in this province,'' says Lynden Bechervaise, president of the Committee of Anglophone Social Action. CASA, founded in 1975, is the first group of its kind to defend language rights and Anglophone culture in Quebec.

''Anglophones represent less than 1 percent of the civil service even though they represent 15 percent of the population,'' he adds. ''The population as a consequence doesn't feel that the services are for them.

'We are not at home'

''You need permission to go to an English school. You can't put up an English sign unless the French one is bigger. Forms from the government are in French, and our elderly people can't understand them. A doctor who is perfectly bilingual won't serve you in English because it's a French-designated hospital. It all builds up to a feeling that we are not at home, not welcome.''

For Quebec's native peoples, the issue is even more acute. Meeting in Quebec City on the eve of the referendum vote, some 42 chiefs signaled opposition to any plan that would include them in a new independent state and said their peoples would not be bound by the outcome.

''We respect the aspirations of Quebeckers and other peoples in Canada to determine their own future and political relationships, but not at the expense of our Aboriginal and other human rights,'' reads a document released after the meeting.

Polls in both the Cree and Inuit communities signaled that more than 96 percent would reject inclusion in an independent Quebec.

For Max Gros-Louis, grand chief of the Huron Wendat Nation, the prospect of another referendum is troubling.

''We're not just a 'distinct society,' [as Quebeckers describe themselves], we're a nation,'' he said in an interview after the vote. ''We're not English, we're not Canadian, and we're certainly not Quebecker.''

The Huron, once numbering more than 300,000, are now 2,700 people based on a reservation a half-mile square near Quebec City. Quebec, he adds, was the last province that authorized Indians to vote, in 1970.

''If English-speakers did to [French-speakers in Quebec] just 1 percent of what Quebecers did to us, their language and culture would not exist,'' he says.

''It was forbidden for us to speak our own language, and we lost it. Now, with the help of academics, we're trying to regain it,'' he adds. ''It's still forbidden for us to go to English schools. I want my sons to be successful in commerce, and for that they need English. They can't get it here.''

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