The reelection of Premier Lucien Bouchard and the Parti Quebecois is a victory for separatists, but not for separation. The people of Quebec voted - narrowly - in favor of the good government Mr. Bouchard has provided, and to give their province a strong hand as it tries to wrench what it sees as deserved concessions from English Canada.
At the same time, however, the narrowness of the PQ victory boosts the impression given by opinion polling that Quebeckers are not ready for another independence referendum. The PQ won 75 seats with only 43 percent of the vote, while Jean Charest's Liberal Party won 48 seats with 44 percent of the vote. (Liberals' fewer seats reflect the concentration of their voters around Montreal and Ottawa.)
Bouchard seems in no hurry to push for a vote, either. He promised during the campaign to hold another referendum during the next four to five years only if "winning conditions" exist. Since he gave no precise definition of those conditions, he left himself plenty of room to maneuver.
Mr. Charest's party gained a seat, but not the thumping of the PQ he was supposed to deliver. Quebeckers thus sent yet another blunt message to Canada's political and business establishment: We are not giving up and we are not going away. Sooner or later you're going to have to negotiate with us, either on terms that give our French language and culture more respect, or on independence.
It's a message English Canada doesn't want to hear, judging by editorials in some leading newspapers. Yes, both sides are fed up with the stalemate and each other's perceived unwillingness to compromise. But to give up on a united Canada, even if more loosely confederated, will only create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
There is still time for Canadians to agree on how to live together. That would be in everyone's interest. The politicians should act now; this opportunity could be the last, best one.