JACQUES PARIZEAU wants to be commander-in-chief of the Quebec armed forces. Those armed forces don't exist at the moment, and the idea of a Quebec army prompts giggles among some Canadians. But as leader of the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois, Mr. Parizeau is pledged to provide Quebec with ``the full trappings of a sovereign state'' should his party come to power in the province and win public approval of an independent state.
``I am not all that much interested in spending a great deal of money on [Quebec's] national defense,'' says Parizeau, who was Quebec's minister of finance from 1976 to 1984 when the Parti Qu'eb'ecois was last in power. ``But you need some.''
Within Canada's relatively loose federation, Quebec already has considerable powers. It collects its own provincial personal and corporate income taxes, runs its own pension and health insurance plans, controls education, and maintains offices in foreign countries to stir up business and encourage cultural ties.
But Parizeau wants Quebec to have embassies, not offices; border posts to curtail the flow of drugs or apply regulations on traffic; Quebec passports; and the right to pass all laws, sign all treaties, and collect all taxes. Quebeckers would not pay federal taxes.
That goes too far for most Quebeckers, even though many in this conservative society approve an evolution toward greater independence from the rest of Canada.
As long as a majority of Quebeckers voted in a clearly worded referendum for independence, it is extremely unlikely that the federal government in Ottawa would send in its troops to block separation. Canada is in no danger of a civil war, as happened in the United States in the 1860s when the Southern states tried to secede. And since Quebec is part of Canada voluntarily, any comparison with the efforts of Lithuania to break away from the Soviet Union is not valid. Indeed, the attitude of many English-speaking Canadians is that if Quebec wants to go, let it go.
At the same time, many Anglophones regard the concept of a sovereign Quebec as regressive. ``If Canada were to split up, all its parts would carry the burden of shame and failure for 100 years,'' declares Bernard Wood, chief executive officer of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, a think tank sponsored by the federal government. ``Quebec would be a relatively insignificant curiosity, as would the rest of us.''
``This would be the wave of the past,'' Mr. Wood added in an interview in Ottawa. ``If we are swimming against the stream of greater integration in the world, we would be swimming toward insignificance.''
Asked about these comments, Parizeau bristles a little. ``As far as we are concerned in Quebec, to live in a small country we can call our own is not to lapse into insignificance,'' he says. ``It is to achieve our own personality.''
Where Wood sees nations moving toward greater economic and political integration, as in the European Community, Parizeau argues that greater economic integration through free trade enables smaller political units to survive and thrive. He expects Europe to remain a community of sovereign nations - not a single nation. ``I am not rowing against history,'' he protests in his excellent Oxford English (Parizeau has a doctorate from the London School of Economics). ``I am rowing with history.''
Parizeau concedes that there are economic restraints on Quebec's sovereignty. Of the province's total production, 40 percent is ``exported.'' About half goes to the rest of Canada; the other half to other nations, primarily the United States. But he maintains that Canada's 1989 free-trade agreement with the US makes independence more feasible than in 1980, when Quebeckers rejected this goal in a referendum.
``For us, the free-trade agreement is a major development,'' he says. ``The whole dynamics of Quebec sovereignty changes.''
Under his concept of sovereignty, the US would agree to continue its free-trade arrangement with a sovereign Quebec. (Another economist wonders if the US might want to change the deal, perhaps in regard to Quebec's textile industry.) Quebec would also continue its customs and monetary union with Canada.
``The idea of a Quebec currency never bothered me much,'' Parizeau says. ``It would not be all that difficult to set up. But for a lot of people, having a common currency [with Canada] is comforting.''
Parizeau also sees the growth and modernization of Francophone-owned and -managed Quebec companies as a factor making independence more feasible. Quebec would accept all current Canadian treaties where applicable. Parizeau would want Quebec to be a member of NATO and NORAD, the North American Air Defense command.
Parizeau concedes many issues would have to be worked out with Canada. He suggests transportation might remain a common service. There would have to be guarantees regarding road, railway, and maritime transport so that Canadians in Atlantic Canada could easily move through Quebec to Ontario and western Canada. The national debt would have to be divided.
Canadians from English-speaking Canada would still be free to move to and live in Quebec. But, says Parizeau, their children would have to go to French schools as provided for in Quebec's 12-year-old language law, Bill 101. A Canadian Supreme Court decision has prevented the application of that section of the bill, so Canadians whose parents speak English at home at present can send their children to English schools.
Parizeau acknowledges that Quebec, seeking more powers, has been ``a pain in the neck'' to English Canada for many years. To him that means Canadians (Anglophones) ``are entitled at last to have their own country, as they see it, just as well as and as much as Quebeckers are entitled to theirs.''