THE fight for Canada's future is under way and seems likely to be decided by a relatively small group of swing votes in predominantly French-speaking Quebec.
As Canadians prepare for a government-funded media barrage aimed at wooing them to vote "yes" on a new constitutional agreement in an Oct. 26 national referendum, there are signs that convincing Quebeckers to do so will be considerably more difficult than persuading those outside the province, pollsters and political insiders say.
While a national poll released Tuesday shows Canadians outside Quebec favor the new constitutional deal by more than 2-to-1, a close analysis of the percentages inside Quebec shows Premier Robert Bourassa's ruling Liberal Party has serious work to do to convince crucial swing voters the deal is a good one for Quebec.
Mr. Bourassa must also surmount opposition from the powerful youth wing of his own party, and the defection last week of prominent Quebec Liberal Party official Jean Allaire, author of the party's constitutional platform. Mr. Allaire's opposition has lent new credibility to separatist Parti Qucois (PQ) leaders' arguments that the deal falls far short of Quebec's demands.
"Quebeckers are being asked to support a constitutional agreement that Liberals and [members of the PQ], sovereignists and federalists consider to be harmful to the future of Quebeckers and their interests," PQ leader Jacques Parizeau told Toronto daily Globe and Mail.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers, including Quebec's Bourassa, agreed to a deal that guarantees the survival of Quebec's French culture, shares power by creating an elected senate, grants Quebec permanent representation in the House of Commons at 25 percent, and grants self-government to Canada's 1 million indigenous people.
But Donna Dasko, vice president of the Toronto-based Environics Research Group, which conducted the recent national poll, says there is a distance to go before Quebeckers accept the deal. While 43 percent of those polled in Quebec this week said they would vote for the agreement, 39 percent would vote against, and 18 percent expressed no opinion. And while Bourassa might reap a legal victory by accumulating at least 51 percent of the vote, he must also meet an unwritten "double majority" rule well known in Quebec if he is to satisfy the French-speaking majority, observers say.
Because French-speaking Quebeckers make up 85 percent of the province's 5.2 million registered voters, and because English-speaking and allophone voters will likely vote en masse in favor of the deal, any less than 60 percent support will be seen as having less than a simple majority of French speakers behind it.
Many Quebec observers agree that Francophones would view a constitutional plan adopted under those circumstances as having been imposed by "English Canada" on Quebec, setting the stage for a split with Canada.
"To get a victory, Bourassa has not only to get a majority, but a `double majority that is, a majority of the population and a majority of Francophones," says Tony Kondaks, an officer of Quebec's Equality Party, which represents much of the province's 15 percent minority Anglophone and allophone community. "The target will be the swing Francophone vote."
It is these French-speaking voters, along with a potentially significant number of unhappy Anglophone voters, who could throw the vote against the deal - or help Bourassa pull out a victory. The current thinking among Quebec politicians is that the race will be close, with perhaps a slim majority of 52 or 53 percent of Quebeckers.
"It won't be easy," to get the swing Francophone vote, cautions Claude Gauthier, vice president of the Center for Public Opinion Research, a Montreal polling firm. "Bourassa will have to convince the [20-to-30 percent of French speaking] people who are very proud to be living in Quebec and who want more power for Quebec, but not necessarily to separate."
While Canada's federal parties closed ranks around the deal, the opposition of the Reform Party in western Canada could prompt a backlash in Quebec if Quebeckers see it as a slap against French culture.