The first snow of the year was gently mantling the city. At the Bonaventure Hotel two men were swimming energetically in a heated outdoor pool, vanishing every few seconds in a swirl of steam and snowflakes.
It wasn't much warmer in the hotel's chilly "Salon St. Michel" conference room. There a tall man with a flushed, hawklike face and a firm, determined mouth was explaining to assembled captains of industry why he believed the Province of Quebec faces an infinitely brighter future as part of Canada than as an independent nation.
Claude Ryan, the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, has an air of steely mission about him, of religious zeal even. He is aggressively scholarly. In another century he might have been a Jesuit missionary to Canada's Iroquois or an austere medieval scholar of intimidating intellectual breadth.
Today, as always, he is putting his message across with a consummate reasonableness that has become his trademark. Quebec's aspirations, he insists, will best be served if the province remains in the Canadian federal system. And he displays an awesome command of facts and figures to support his contention.
A former national secretary of Canadian Catholic Action, editorial writer of Le Devoir (the most intellectual of Quebec dailies), and later its publisher, he constitutes a formidable opponent for Rene Levesque, Quebec Premier and leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ), which wants to take the province out of its federal relationship with the rest of Canada.
Quebeckers are to vote in a referendum to be held next May or June on whether to give their provincial government the go-ahead to negotiate itself out of the federation. The independence proposal includes a projected economic and monetary association with Canada. Meanwhile, Quebec's status remains a side issue in the Canadian national elections due Feb. 18.
The PQ, which Mr. Levesque, a former television journalist of considerable, but sometimes abrasive, charm, led to power in the province in November, 1976, has set out its position on "sovereignty association" -- a euphemism for independence -- in a publication entitled "Quebec-Canada: a New Deal." Mr. Ryan and the Liberals have responded with a document entitled "A New Canadian Federation."
Both documents attempt to satisfy the aspirations of quebec's 5 million French-speaking citizens, many of whom argue that the province has good claim to be considered a nation, possessing its own distinctive populace, history, culture, religion, institutions, and natural resources.
The PQ maintains that had it not been for the British conquest of Canada in 1763, the French settlers on the banks of the St. Lawrence soon would have severed their ties with Paris and become an independent nation.
The pequistes, as PQ supporters are known, have long memories. The enigmatic "Je me souviens" ("I remember") embossed on provincial car license plates is no idle boast.
Few French Canadians have forgotten that the British conquest excluded their ancestors from government, civil service, trade, and industry in the rest of Canada -- effectively forcing most of them to eke out a livelihood in Quebec's fields and forests.
As far as the PQ is concerned, Quebec's grievances against English Canada are not merely matters of ancient history.
It claims that the federal government in Ottawa has encroached on its jurisdiction in such areas as cultural affairs, social policy, labor relations, municipal affairs, and natural resources -- which include timber, minerals, asbestos, and hydroelectric power.
The PQ points out that the Auto Pact concluded by Canada and the United States in 1965 concentrated nearly 90 percent of automobile production in English-speaking Ontario, creating some 210,000 jobs there by 1971, and bringing "almost nothing to Quebec."
The Quebec Liberal Party has scathingly dismissed the PQ's sovereignty association concept as "a house of cards."
Far from suffering under the heavy hand of the Canadian federal system, it maintains that the province has actually become "a vital, creative, strong, and free society" because of it. It adds that between 1973 and 1978, Quebec received $3 billion Cdn in feeral gasoline subsidies to cushion it against higher international oil prices.
In addition, the Liberal Party stresses that the federal system of equalization payments for public services paid to provinces whose revenues, in certain taxation sectors, are inferior to the Canadian average, provided the Quebec government with 12 percent of its total budget in the fiscal year 1977-78 .
The Liberals have scrutinized the PQ's proposed economic association and judge it tobe "deplorably lacking in specifics."
"Have the authors of the White Paper forgotten the authoritative statements of Provincial Premiers Allen Blakeney [Saskatchewan], Peter Lougheed [Alberta], William Davis [Ontario], and others, who have warned Quebec they will not negotiate the PQ's projected economic association?" an astounded party spokesman asks.
In short, the Quebec's Liberal Party considers it in Quebec's paramount interests to retain the Canadian federal tie. But it wants the entire federal system to be modernized, reinvigorated, and remodeled "in a fashion that takes account of the numerous changes that have taken place in Canada, and above all in Quebec."
It is seeking to replace the 113-year-old British North America Act -- still Canada's Constitution -- with a new Canadian constitution; to ascribe to the provinces all services and powers that they can reasonably assume; and to replace the Senate -- the upper house of Parliament -- with a "federal council."
Any new constitution, it feels, should provide guarantees affirming and protecting Quebec's distinct personality -- in all its many facets.
In essence, political analysts here say, nine of Canada's provinces are being asked to reorder their relations with the federal government in order to facilitate the creation of a special status for a tenth -- Quebec.
Declares Mr. Levesque, who has branded the liberal scheme "catastrophic": "You are either a province or you are something else. And it is my feeling that the rest of Canada will never accept a federalism where one province is given special status . . . while at the same time forcing all provinces and Ottawa to change their basic relationships."
If the PQ loses the referendum and a subsequent election, the Quebec problem could only become more acute, Mr. Levesque says.
Mr. Ryan retorts: "We are seeking a balance, and it is much harder to achieve a balance than a unilateral solution.
"Our proposals are debatable. We're not erecting them into dogmas. We're submitting these proposals with respect to our opponents so they can enlighten us with their generous criticism."
But Pierre Bourgault, a communications professor at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal claims that no one will ever read the Liberal document because it is "too long, too complex, and too precise." In his judgement it is "too strong for English Canada and too weak for Quebec." In attempting to satisfy everyone, he predicts it will satisfy no one.
If Quebec becomes an independent nation, nobody would be more surprised than the British generals who conquered French Canada: James Wolfe, James Murray, and Jeffrey Amherst. The French, they imagined, were crushed, never to rise again. Clearly they underestimated the spirit and stamina of the Quebeckers -- however the referendum fares in the spring.