Quebec Report Pushes Separation

Call for referendum comes as Quebeckers see little desire in Canada to patch up differences

QUEBEC became a part of Canada after a 30-minute battle won by British Gen. James Wolfe in 1759. But the province is preparing to leave Canada after a 30-year war of words. The French-speaking province edged closer to independence last week after a special committee called for a referendum on whether Quebec should leave Canada. Opinion polls have shown that about 55 percent of Quebeckers favor independence.

Quebec's Belanger-Campeau Commission suggested to the provincial Premier Robert Bourassa that a referendum on Quebec independence be held by October 26, 1992 at the latest. If the vote is yes, Quebec would be an independent country by 1993.

Quebec is Canada's largest province with an area of 524,000 square miles and 6.7 million people - 83 percent of whom are French-speaking. Canada has 26 million citizens.

In the aftermath of the commission's recommendations, separatist members of the commission feel certain of victory.

"The campaign starts today and all the big organizations will be in the field to fight for sovereignty," says Gerald Larosea, Quebec labor leader and a member of the commission. He says separatists will win because English Canada appears unlikely to agree to Quebec's demands.

"I don't think Canada has the desire to rebuild itself to satisfy Quebec," Mr. Larosea says.

Birth of a new country?

But Canada's Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, has played down the committee's report.

"This Parliament shall establish the time frames and not the legislature or political party in any province," Mr. Mulroney told the House of Commons.

When Mulroney came to power in 1984, separatism appeared to be a dead issue. But the failure of Meech Lake Constitutional changes last June caused a resurgence in French Canadian nationalist feeling.

"Rightly or wrongly, Meech delivered a blow to Quebec's cultural pride for which atonement is required," says Gretta Chambers, a Montreal political analyst and newspaper columnist.

Quebec took the results of the Meech Lake meetings - in which two small provinces rejected the plan - as a slap in the face from English Canada. Since then Quebec has upped the ante, saying it wants control of most services, except national defense and customs, if it is to stay within Canada.

The Belanger-Campeau Commission issued details of its version of a sovereign Quebec, saying the new country would use the Canadian dollar, but reject laws that require that the English language be used.

"The application of the Canadian Constitution and federal laws, as well as the collection of federal taxes would end," says the commission's report. The document was expected to be pro-independence but went further, appearing to assume that Quebec independence was inevitable. Not all political analysts agree on the report's impact.

"Quebeckers did not expect the Belanger-Campeau commission to dictate the details and timing of Quebec's political destiny. Governments are elected to do that," Mrs. Chambers says.

But others, including Michel Belanger, a banker and co-chairman of the commission, believe the prospect of Canada and Quebec patching their differences would be a "miracle."

The commission's report foresees few economic problems with an independent Quebec and says the new country would be "open to economic ties" with Canada.

English Canada might well reject that and other demands, even under so-called renewed federalism being suggested by Prime Minister Mulroney.

Reform Party bristles

"We believe all provinces should be equal," says Ron Wood of the Reform Party of Canada in Calgary. The Reform Party, which leads in opinion polls in western Canada, could hold the balance of power in Ottawa following the next federal election.

The commission report would have Quebec wait a bit longer for "binding" offers that might keep Quebec in the federation.

But Mr. Wood says his constituents are not in the mood to comply with the report, and that will be the message sent Quebec from the Reform Party convention in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, this weekend.

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