Which Path for Quebec?

TONIGHT in Montreal a debate on the future of Canada takes place that everyone in North America should note.

The main showdown is the TV debate between Quebec Premier David Johnson of the Liberal Party and opponent Jacques Parizeau of Parti Que becois prior to Quebec's Sept. 12 elections. Mr. Johnson is strongly committed to a unified Canada. Mr. Parizeau is an impassioned separatist committed to making Quebec sovereign.

Elections for Quebec's parliament, the National Assembly, were called last July. At the time, Parizeau and his party of Pequistes, as separatists are called, seemed certain to win. After eight years of the Liberals and with double-digit inflation, ``change'' was in the air. Polls now indicate that Mr. Parizeau's large lead has been cut somewhat. If Mr. Johnson, considered handsome and more popular than Parizeau, can make a convincing case that the Liberals are responding to Quebec's needs, he could avert the separatists.

If the Pequistes win, Parizeau has vowed to begin immediately setting a path in the National Assembly toward separation and sovereignty, including a referendum in 10 months.

Whether Parizeau could pull off such a potentially damaging and destabilizing act is unclear. Voters seem ready to give him the nod. But they do so reluctantly, and for reasons of freshness and change, not separation. Polls show not only that 60 percent of Quebec's voters do not want to separate, but that 42 percent do not even know what the separatist platform of the Pequistes involves! Many voters will pull the lever for Parizeau but vote no on his separation referendum.

This is a curious kind of electoral sleepwalking. To vote for change, but to do so for a party whose avowed platform is to spend the next 10 months leaving Canada, gives the Pequistes a year in which they don't have to be accountable on real issues like the economy. It gives them an enormous propaganda advantage; ethnic tensions may well flare.

Moreover, Parizeau offers no answers to real problems about separation: A leading think tank last week published a study showing that the cost of an independent Quebec would cause taxes to rise 53 percent and plunge the new state into debt of a level one expects of third-world countries. The Indian populations of Quebec say they will rejoin Canada if Quebec leaves and will ask for federal troops to protect them. Quebec has no automatic right to its 1867 borders, though Pequistes claim them.

Parizeau calls such issues ``scaremongering.'' Yet they, along with the issue of ethnic tension in Canada, need to be soberly addressed.

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