Quebec's historic 'oui' for Canada

French croissants and English crumpets are still sold in separate Montreal markets, Quebec drivers still get cheap gasoline from Alberta's oil fields, and one-time ardent separatist Rene Levesque still holds power in Canada's Frenchspeaking province.

So what has changed for Canada?

For one, an independent Quebec was ruled out for the foreseeable future May 20 by the province's voters in a strong 3- to-2 margin (59.9 to 40.5 percent). Separatists now can either try for a "better deal" with Ottawa within the Canadian confederation or keep their dream alive by long-term persuasion or possibly terrorism within a left-wing minority.

"We have been too impatient with history," laments Louisiana Desigagnier, a disappointed Quebecker. "We have been beaten by our own people."

A second result of Quebec's "non" vote, coupled with the western provinces' discontent over federal distribution of their natural resource wealth, is to add still more urgency to the need already widely felt here for a redrafting of Canada's Constitution. To fail to do so, say constitutional scholars, could heighten the risk of a divided Canada being gobbled up province by province, by the United States.

The western provinces' demands are clear. So Prime minister Pierre Trudeau's proposed constitutional conference later this summer among the ten provincial premiers could rest on the question: "What does Rene Levesque want?"

The Quebec premier, after forming the separatist-based Parti Quebecois (PQ) in 1968 and winning office in 1976 with a 41 percent popularity on the promise of good government and a referendum on independence, has adopted an "Etapiste" (step-by-step) approach.

The long-awaited and historic referendum called not for separation but merely a mandate to negotiated "sovereignty- association," or in effect separation with a shared economy. With only an estimated 20 percent of Quebeckers in support of independence, he has been forced to moderate his strategy. In 1973 he promised that a separate Quebec would remain in NATO and NORAD (North american Air Defense Command).

During the five-week, intensely fought referendum campaign, Mr. Levesque dropped the use of "sovereignty-association" and demanded "equality" for Quebec with the rest of Canada -- a battle cry not unlike the United States' recent Sunbelt vs. Snowbelt power struggle for federal dollars and local policy control.

Mr. Levesque's supporters attribute his large defeat in the referendum to the pocketbook appeals and patriotic stirrings to stay in Canada by "non" leader Claude Ryan, a fellow French-speaker and provincial head of the Liberal Party.

Mr. Levesque's position at any constitutional negotiation will remain unclear perhaps until he calls for an election, which he must do by November 1981. But he is more likely to seek an election this fall to cash in on the popularity his government's efficient administration has gained. Opposition leader Ryan has caleld for such an election to "complete the verdict."

In his autobiography, Mr. Levesque says: "If everything fell through or were simply delayed, it would be very difficult to recharge the batteries. . . or even to ensure the survival of the current movement after a long period of depression which would follow a setback in the will for emancipation."

Daniel La Touche, a Levisque aid and McGill University professor, who wrote the referendum question, predicts the Quebec premier can only contain disaffection within the PQ for three months or so. To keep the party together, he says, Mr. Levesque needs to reassert a clear separatist policy. In this view the Quebec premier's election strategy should be based on opposition to Mr. Trudeau's proposals for "renewed federalism" and to Mr. Ryan's call for a "special status" for Quebec within a new Canadian constitution.

Meanwhile, if Prime minister Trudeau, a Quebecker himself, fails ti win a consensus from all provinces for a new constitution within a year, constitutional scholars here predict a revival of support for Quebec separatism.

"If either Levesque or Ryan cannot negotiate a new deal for Quebec," says Ryan adviser Yvan Allaire, "then we are back to sovereignty-association."

Mr. Allaire compared the difficulty of the coming constitutional talks to a United States "where there is only a Texas, New York, and California."

Any stalemate in shaping greater provincial powers, such as a greater share of oil profits for Alberta and more freedom for Quebec's cultural aspirations, could only lead to frustration and a natural drift to "devolution" -- a splitting off of the provinces with some of them even seeking association with the United States.

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