IN the last year, Canadians have been bombarded with apocalyptic images and dire warnings about the ``imminent'' separation of Quebec. American author Lansing Lamont has even gone so far as to predict the end of Canada as we know it with riots in Montreal and an aboriginal uprising. However, similar catastrophic predictions have been circulating for the last 30 years, and it is extremely unlikely that this time around, in 1995 to be precise, Quebec will separate.
As the victorious Parti Qucois (PQ) is certain to discover, there is much to author Mordecai Richler's comment that ``Quebeckers tend to vote for separation only when it doesn't count.''
In early 1994, the Quebec Liberal Party attempted to pass the political torch from Premier Robert Bourassa to Daniel Johnson, a scion of a prominent Quebec political family that has provided three premiers of Quebec since 1966. The harsh realities of governance in the 1990s are such that it is difficult for a government to obtain a second or third mandate from voters. Government programs and public sector jobs are being scaled back. Tax revolts are in the air. And structural adjustments, such as trade liberalization, carry at least a short-term political price as measures to increase economic efficiency eliminate some jobs.
The Johnson government provides a good illustration of the difficulties. Many of the Liberal election posters were defaced with a sticker with the number ``142'' and a bar over it. This was a reference to Bill 142, 1993 Liberal legislation that opened up some construction sites to nonunionized workers. The Liberal government was attempting to remove an interprovincial trade barrier, a measure that was roundly applauded in Ontario and New Brunswick, but was harshly criticized by the unions and construction workers in Quebec.
Catering to the desire for change, the PQ's 1994 electoral slogan was ``L'autre facon de gouverner,'' which translates as ``the other option for government.'' It says much that the PQ lacked the confidence to campaign openly on the independence option. Although the separatist agenda was never far below the surface, the PQ's slogan was not ``L'an prochain mon pays'' (next year my country), a slogan that appeared on placards during the recent Fete nationale, St. Jean Baptiste Day, June 24.
Indeed, the PQ was elected in 1976 and reelected in 1981 in no small measure on the promise of good government. The PQ Cabinets gained a solid reputation for containing many competent and well-educated ministers.
In politics, a party must normally gear its policies and appeal to what an American journalist once described as the ``vital center.'' It must build a coalition sufficiently large to form a government. In Quebec, the ``vital center'' probably corresponds to special status for Quebec (which, in de facto terms, it already possesses) and the recognition of Quebec as a ``distinct society,'' a cornerstone of the failed 1987 Meech Lake Accord. The accord would have satisfied this ``vital center,'' and its rejection propelled the Bloc Qucois (BQ) to official opposition status in the 1993 federal election.
Furthermore, for many Quebeckers, sovereignty means something less than complete independence from Canada. Quebec comic Yvan Deschamps probably got it right when he jokingly commented that the dream of Quebeckers was to have an independent Quebec within a strong, united Canada.
So where does this leave us? With the PQ forming the government in Quebec and the BQ as the official opposition in Ottawa. Both parties are handicapped by their pursuit of the independence option for Quebec, an option that if presented to Quebec voters unambiguously on a referendum is almost certain to be rejected. As much as BQ leader Lucien Bouchard would like to play a key role in Quebec, his party can be little more than a thorn in the side of Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
On the provincial front, the PQ's Jacques Parizeau will be unable to win any concessions from the federal government or the other provinces. His party, like the BQ, would be in a difficult position following a loss on a separation referendum. Turf wars between the sovereignist parties and their leaders, already in evidence, are likely to continue and perhaps worsen.
Amid all the talk about separation, there is a strong desire on the part of Quebeckers for constitutional renewal, ``to renew Canada in the interests of Quebec,'' as a recent editorial in La Presse put it. The challenge for the federalist side during and after a future referendum will be to offer Quebec some form of ``renewed federalism,'' as was the case in the 1980 referendum. However, even without renewed federalism, the probability of Quebec separating in 1995 is minimal. As La Presse put it, ``If there is one constant in contemporary Quebec politics, it is the rejection of the sovereignist option by a majority of Quebeckers.'' The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.