THE trees are aflame with color on the Plains of Abraham, a Canadian national park whose wide lawns carpet the farmer's field where English troops defeated the French in 1759 - a half-hour battle obscured by centuries, but not forgotten here in Quebec.
In a province where the motto stamped in royal blue on every car's license plate is ``Je me souviens'' (``I remember''), the battle memorialized in Quebec's capital symbolizes for many here the first of many English subjugations in Canada's long history.
It is a collective sense that dwells semiconsciously in the minds and hearts of many of Quebec's 6 million French-speakers who want their province to surmount ``the conquest,'' and to become an independent country.
``Young people don't know much about history,'' says Anne Dandurand, a French-speaking novelist dressed in black walking along a Montreal sidewalk. ``But even among them there is a recurring sense that we must be our own country. I'm sure it is inevitable.''
IN August she and other hard-core Francophone independantistes moved a step closer to their dream with the election to power of the Parti Qucois (PQ), which is dedicated to Quebec independence.
Jacques Parizeau, the PQ leader and new provincial premier, has promised a referendum in 1995 on the question of separating from Canada. An economist trained at the London School of Economics, he has promised a vigorous campaign to persuade Quebeckers that independence is a good idea.
``We want to become a normal people and a normal country,'' the new Quebec leader told his supporters in his victory speech. ``Together, regardless of where we come from ... we now begin a new chapter in our history.''
But Mr. Parizeau has a problem: He and almost everyone else in Canada expected a PQ landslide that never materialized. The PQ did get 77 of the 125 seats in Quebec's legislature but received only 44.7 percent of the popular vote. That amounted to an almost even split with the Liberal Party, led by Daniel Johnson, with 44.3 percent. The Liberals want a united Canada.
During the campaign, the PQ held a large lead in most polls. But the same surveys often showed only about 40 percent of Quebeckers favored an independent Quebec, while 60 percent wanted to stick with Canada.
Tellingly, Parizeau's campaign slogan was a gentle ``L'autre facon de gouverner'' (``the other way of governing''), not the nationalistic ``Le Quebec aux Qucois'' (``Quebec for the Quebeckers'').
Many who voted PQ say they did so with the idea that they would probably vote ``no'' to separation in the promised referendum.
The popular vote was immediately interpreted as a defeat for the PQ's separatist ambitions. It showed, pundits say, that Quebeckers are deeply divided on whether to leave Canada and that people wanted a change of government - but that's all.
``I feel bad about the rest of Canada, that they are mad at us,'' says Andre Durocher, a janitor at a Montreal elementary school. ``But I don't think they understand. We vote for the best government, not to separate.''
The wild celebration and the traffic jams in Montreal that greeted the first PQ win in 1976 were noticeably absent in August. Financial markets, skittish before the election, have soared under the expectation that Canada will remain intact.
Stunned, the PQ has begun to backpedal from Parizeau's promise of a referendum by May or June, saying only ``sometime'' in 1995. But even that could be delayed, some say. Sensing PQ weakness, federalist forces outside Quebec that were quiet during the provincial campaign have begun to attack.
Practically crowing with confidence, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien challenged Parizeau to hold his referendum as promised before July 1 - Canada Day - so the country could celebrate its unity at that time. He also reminded Canadians that he would organize and lead the fight for a ``no'' vote on the referendum.
``The first responsibility of a prime minister of Canada is to ensure the unity of the country,'' he said in a speech to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce meeting in Quebec City last month. ``Everywhere federalists go in Quebec, we will explain the importance of remaining in Canada.''
Assumptions don't work
Persuading Quebeckers of this should be a cake walk - in theory. Quebec will receive more than $11 billion (C; US $8.1 billion) this year in transfer payments to help pay for education, welfare, and medical care, according to one recent estimate. Quebec's net gain after taxes to Ottawa is pegged at about $3 billion (C; US $2.2 billion).
Beside that, Canada once again this year earned the United Nations' ranking as the world's best place to live. Chretien will doubtless recycle this endorsement as the rest of the world watches and wonders: If 28 million ``kinder, gentler'' Canadians living in a rich $700 billion (US $518 billion) economy can't make their country work, who can?
A few apocalyptic scenarios surfaced with the election, including a book entitled ``Breakup: The Coming End of Canada and the Stakes for America'' by United States journalist Lansing Lamont. He ponders what might happen if one-quarter of Canada's people and economy take a hike. His vision includes gun-toting natives and gunboat diplomacy, all roundly dismissed in the Quebec news media as extremist nonsense.
Yet, there is worry.
``Presently, people are not ready to vote `yes,' to separating,'' says Claude Gauthier, vice president of CROP, a Montreal polling firm. ``But I would never take for granted that a referendum eight to 12 months from now would be defeated. [The PQ] has control of the government agenda. That's a powerful tool.''
This is the third time in history that separatists have held power in Quebec. The PQ under Rene Levesque was first elected in 1976 and held power until 1985. But Quebeckers in 1980 rejected a PQ referendum on separating, 60 percent of them voting ``no.''
Mr. Gauthier and others, though, warn of critical changes in Canada's political scene since 1980 that could tip the balance in favor of a ``yes'' vote next year. These include:
* Mr. Chretien is no Pierre Trudeau. Former Prime Minister Trudeau was no friend of separatists, yet his intellect and bearing drew a measure of respect from them. Chretien is now the key defender of Canadian unity. Yet many Quebeckers view him as a flawed salesman for unity, because of his key role during the early 1980s in assisting Trudeau to adopt a new Canadian Constitution that severed Canada's ties with Britain. In 1981, Trudeau and the English-speaking provinces agreed to adopt the new Constitution over the objections of separatist Premier Mr. Levesque.
* Separatists in Parliament. Unlike 1980, federalist forces will have to contend with sniping and rebuttals from the 53 members of the Bloc Qucois, Quebec separatists led by Lucien Bouchard, who were elected to the federal Parliament in 1993. The Bloc's role, according to PQ strategists, is to blunt Ottawa's (read: Chretien's) arguments against separation as the PQ's plans are revealed in more detail.
* Bitterness on both sides. Emotions are frayed, and the sentiment that once favored accommodating Quebec's desire for recognition as a ``distinct society'' (in the words of the Meech Lake Accord) has been exhausted in a decade of wrangling over constitutional changes. The effort to satisfy Quebec has resulted in two recent failures. First was the 1990 failure to ratify the Meech Lake Accord. Second was the 1992 national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord in which Canadians voted ``no'' to constitutional reform.
* Unrealistic expectations. Despite those failures, polls show Quebeckers still want ``to give Canada another chance'' to renew federalism by presenting them with a better constitutional option and more provincial powers. But the current strong consensus, especially in Western Canada, is that Quebec must decide to stay or go. Period. No more concessions.
* Parizeau's good-government plan. Parizeau could deliver on his ``good government'' promise and impress Quebec voters with his plan to decentralize government. He may also get help from the national economic recovery, which was being felt in Quebec before the election. The 12 percent unemployment rate in the province could be further cut by PQ jobs programs.
* A vigorous campaign plan. The PQ plans to wage an energetic campaign to whip up enthusiasm for independence, confront the federal government, and release new studies that show independence would help, not hinder, the Quebec economy - one of Quebeckers' deepest fears. A place of their own
``People here like the idea of having their own country,'' says Allan Manus, an English speaker born and raised in Montreal. ``Deep down, there is a group consciousness of being French and wanting to see it manifested as a country. At the same time, [Francophones] are very leery of the economic prospects of a separate Quebec and like the security of being in Canada. They want both.''
Chretien, however, cannot offer both. His options in 1995 will be more limited than Trudeau's were in 1980. Even should he desire to make concessions, the 52 Members of Parliament from the western-based Reform Party, led by Preston Manning, will prevent Chretien from devoting the nation's time and money to Quebec.
``This is a much more dangerous situation than the moderate nationalists, who make up most of the general voters in Quebec, give it credit for,'' says Stephen Scott, a constitutional expert and law professor at McGill University in Montreal.
Most of the ``soft nationalists'' who helped elect the PQ don't really want Quebec to separate from Canada, but only want more powers for Quebec. Yet in voting to elect the PQ, Professor Scott says, ``they are very naive in their excessive certainty'' that the PQ will not win a referendum. Waiting for `the moment'
Scott and other observers predict that Parizeau will try hard to build confidence in the PQ's ability to run the economy, but also work to foment disputes and raise tensions with English-speaking Canada.
The trump card Parizeau holds is the timing of the referendum. He will choose when to call for a vote - when separatist sentiment and offended honor peak in Quebec.
``It will all depend on what the French call conjoncture or `the moment,' '' says Leon Dion, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. ``The change in the proportion of those who favor separation is sometimes 50 percent, sometimes 40 percent. All will depend on the political climate in Quebec a year from now.''
One of a handful of men charged with gauging that special moment sits in his Spartan office inside Quebec's National Assembly building, a stone's throw from the Plains of Abraham battlefield. Yves Martin, past brooding over the election results, is calculating the fallout and pondering strategies for next year's referendum - looking for the conjoncture.
``My feeling is that we'll go back to over 50 percent [favoring separation] fairly soon,'' says the PQ strategist.
``What gives me confidence for a `yes' vote is that a new dynamism will be soon be established,'' he adds.
Martin is referring to the spate of activity that will soon descend on Quebec in the form of new government initiatives to create jobs in a province with an unemployment rate over 12 percent.
As one of Parizeau's six top advisers in a trusted inner circle, Mr. Martin has known Parizeau since they met in Paris in 1954. That was just prior to Francophone Quebec's ``Quiet Revolution'' - the cultural and economic emergence from the shadows of the Roman Catholic Church and English corporate power. The motto of the period: Maitres chez nous (Masters in our own house).
It is a decades-old sentiment deeply felt in Quebec. Analysts say Parizeau is counting on that reservoir of nationalism to boil to the top amid conflicts with Chretien, Canada's western premiers, Ottawa bureaucrats, and anyone else whose native tongue is English.
Martin strongly denies this, saying the new Parizeau government will not initiate conflicts with Ottawa. Still, he reminds, it is clear that when Quebeckers are criticized, they quickly feel cornered, as they did after the Meech Lake Accord failure when 60 percent supported separation.
He admits, however, that some conflicts over programs are probably inevitable. Ottawa, for example, is seeking to reform social programs and cut the amounts sent to each province. Parizeau says Quebec wants control over these programs, putting him on a collision course with Ottawa. Creating controversy
Amid the conflicts over programs and policy, the PQ will seek to show an intransigent Ottawa at odds with Quebec's interests. Parizeau estimates Quebec would gain $3 billion (US $2.2 billion) by separating from Canada, though other reports indicate recession, debt, and hardship are more likely results.
``If English Canadians want to keep us in Canada, they should not keep reminding us of how much it will cost us if we separate,'' Ms. Dandurand, the writer, says. ``I know that this change would be less [economically] comfortable. But not enough to stop me from voting `yes' at the referendum, that's for sure.''
Given such sentiments, Martin is confident that a referendum victory can be politically engineered, though he is acutely aware that only 40 percent supported separation in 1980 and about the same number support it today.
``I don't think we'll get quite 60 percent,'' he says. ``But we'll get more than the 50 percent-plus-one that we need.''
To do that, he and his fellow strategists know the PQ will have to broaden its base. It will have to sweep in the ``soft nationalists'' who recently voted for the fledgling Action Democratique party. It will also need to woo more of Quebec's 600,000 non-French, non-English-speaking immigrants. They will also need Francophones like Mr. Durocher, the Montreal janitor.
Durocher reflects a wide swath of Francophone opinion that wants more power for Quebec - but doesn't want to separate. Yet there is a lingering memory that may lead to a vote for independence.
``I remember when I was young and you had to speak English,'' Durocher says. ``English was the power. Of course, now I don't think we have to separate. I think we have the [needed powers] now.''
Can Parizeau persuade him that Quebec needs more powers? Many analysts say that if the PQ fails to win next year's referendum, it will stop the separatist movement cold for at least a generation.
Some say they will vote ``no'' in the coming referendum, hoping it is indeed the last chance for the separatists. Dandurand, however, disagrees.
``It will never die,'' she says with a smile. ``It hasn't died yet. Whatever threats are said or promises given, it will never die.''