THE Canadian province of Quebec's burning political issue of recent years -- a call for French community separatism -- is being superseded by concerns over economic growth within a larger Canadian nationhood. Quebec's and Canada's response to this change is instructive precisely because it is affirmative. By making adjustments in the nation's constitutional and political framework (such as bilingualism), Canada has shown that despite problems along the way, national reconciliation -- and nationhood -- can be worked out between quite dissimilar communities.
The extent to which that sense of adjustment has occurred is underscored by the current changeover at the top of the provincial government. Pierre Marc Johnson has been elected the new leader of Quebec's governing Parti Qu'eb'ecois, replacing the party's founder, Ren'e L'evesque, who has stepped down. In becoming party leader under Canada's parliamentary system of government, Mr. Johnson also becomes the new premier of Quebec.
Mr. Johnson sees Quebec's future remaining within the larger Canadian experience -- with the notion of independence a last resort ``insurance policy.'' Mr. L'evesque, by contrast, had founded the Parti Qu'eb'ecois as a champion of separatisim for French-speaking Quebec, although his call for provincial sovereignty was rejected in a 1980 referendum.
Johnson has his work cut out for him, since polls show his party badly trailing Robert Bourassa's Liberal Party. Still, Mr. Johnson, with his low-keyed approach and more conservative economic stance than that of his predecessor, is already cutting into the Liberals' lead. But whatever happens in the coming provincial election, Mr. Johnson's selection shows the extent to which the people of Quebec and, most important, his own party see their future progress within a larger Canadian nationhood.