Oil may be the magnet that keeps Quebec in Canada

As the June referendum on the future of Quebec nears, political leaders across Canada seem ready to put aside their differences and join in concerted opposition to separatist aspirations in the restive, French- speaking province.

The result is mounting pressure on Quebec Premier Rene Levesque.Mr. Levesque's Parti Quebecois has suffered one setback after another since its election in 1976. It now faces the clear prospect of defeat in the plebiscite only three months away.

The referendum will ask Quebeckers whether the province should seek to become a separate country in a common market arrangement with the rest of Canada.

While the premiers of Canada's other nine provinces sympathize with Quebec's goal of more provincial power, they have no truck with the Levesque proposal, which threatens to tear apart Canada's already highly decentralized federal system.

Thus the coming referendum seems to be making allies of political leaders who see eye to eye on little else. While oil-rich Alberta and Ontario, the country's most important manufacturing province, have recently squared off over economic issues like the disposition of domestic petroleum revenues, both categorically reject the notion of an independent Quebec.

Last week, as the pre-referendum debate within the French-speaking province began in earnest, Peter Lougheed, the Alberta Premier, let it be known that Canada's western oil-producing provinces would have no qualms about making an independent Quebec pay higher prices for petroleum.

"Obviously the first call on our limited resources would be for Canadians," Mr. Lougheed pronounced in Montreal. He added that a sovereign Quebec "would have to pay 100 percent of the market price and compete with the heavy US demands" for petroleum. That might mean that Quebec would end up paying $7 a barrel or more above the current, subsidized price of $14.75 a barrel for domestic crude.

Both Alberta and Ontario are supporting Claude Ryan, leader of Quebec's Liberal Party, which poses an alternative to Mr. Levesque. Though the Liberals oppose separation, Mr. Ryan favors more autonomy for Quebec and other provinces in a redefined Canadian federal structure.

Ordinarily, this plan to shift more power away from the central government in Ottawa might bring Mr. Ryan into conflict with a fellow Liberal -- newly reelected Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, an ardent centralist who, facing regional divisions on all sides, can be expected to fight harder then ever against devolution of Ottawa's authority.

So the Quebec Liberal leader can expect the support of the Prime Minister in the pre-referendum campaign. That is, if he needs it.

Recent indications, including Mr. Trudeau's own sweep of Quebec seats in the national election last month, are that Mr. Ryan may not.

An opinion poll released last week showed for the first time a majority of Quebeckers -- 52 percent -- saying they reject the Parti Quebecois plan to win separate status. The opinion sampling, taken by the highly respected Centre de Recherches sur l'Opinion Publique (CROP), indicated only 41 percent intended to vote in favor of the Parti Quebecois plan, while 7 percent remain undecided.

The referendum in June is the culmination of longstanding grievances by Canada's French-speaking minority, which claims to have been disadvantaged culturally and economically through most of the country's 113 years by the English-speaking majority.

Mr. Levesque claims that a separate Quebec in a monetary and trade association with the rest of Canada would preserve French-Canadian culture. He feels it would enhance the provincial standard of living by allowing Quebeckers to develop their own economy based on the province's abundant water power and other resources.

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