QUEBEC Premier Jacques Parizeau's separatist political machine is rumbling through the Quebec countryside, with volunteers campaigning door to door to convince Quebeckers that their province should become a nation.
After a summer spent carefully polling sentiments - for or against Quebec independence - Mr. Parizeau swung into gear last week with his big push to persuade Quebeckers to vote "yes" to a referendum that would lead to Quebec's separation from Canada.
The "yes" campaign kickoff on Aug. 15 came in Alma, a small French-speaking city in the heartland of Quebec separatism.
Standing next to Parizeau amid the cheers of 1,200 separatist supporters were Lucien Bouchard and 25-year-old Mario Dumont - two critical players in the campaign.
Mr. Bouchard heads the Bloc Quebecois, a group of 54 Quebec separatists in the House of Commons. While Parizeau is leader and key strategist, Bouchard is the most popular politician in the province and is widely considered the chief salesman for the "yes" side.
"We have no more alibis, no more excuses," Bouchard said in a rousing speech to the crowd. "We have tried every avenue [to fix the federal system], and every time we have found a dead end. Sovereignty is the only door open to the future for Quebec."
Mr. Dumont's role is equally critical. As leader of the Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), he represents only about 5 percent of Quebec voters.
But these are crucial swing votes that while favoring more autonomy for Quebec also envision continued ties to Canada.
Dumont became a member of the separatist team June 12, after Parizeau and Bouchard convinced him that Parizeau's message of outright independence from Canada would be replaced by a less frightening proposal for independence that promises to try to form economic and political ties to Canada after independence - but does not guarantee them.
Dumont's youth, far from being a negative, deflects the charge that independence is now just the dream of older politicians like Parizeau - a cause that made sense 20 years ago when Francophone wages and education were low in Quebec, but not today when French is dominant.
Facing off against this dynamic trio are Prime Minister Jean Chretien and former Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson, now leader of the Liberal Party and the official opposition in Quebec's National Assembly.
Mr. Chretien is proving a tough opponent. A Quebecker who likes to call himself the "little guy from Shawinigan," after the town in his home district, he has historically not been very popular in Quebec. Hard-line separatists consider him a traitor for helping then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau adopt a new Constitution in 1982 over the objections of Quebec.
But Chretien has played his cards well. Taking a low profile, he has spent much of his time in the past two years on "Team Canada" trade expeditions to Latin America, Europe, and Asia.
These efforts have been geared to show how well Canada works as a single unit in an era of monolithic trade blocs - and how much Quebec would lose economically if it goes it alone.
Chretien's popularity has risen above 40 percent. But analysts say he can neither be seen by the rest of the provinces as pandering to Quebec interests - nor be heavy-handed in his assault on Quebec nationalism - which could backfire.
Into this equation enters the dour Mr. Johnson, a former Quebec treasurer. So far he has proved shrewd and effective. With separatists challenging him to put up his own plan for how Quebec should proceed into the future - or shut up - Johnson has so far refused the bait. Instead he has focused attention on what the referendum represents: separation from Canada.
"This is a referendum," Johnson said recently, "not an election. And this is not a multiple choice question. It's either 'yes' or 'no' to separation."
Still, because there is such strong sentiment in Quebec against the status quo, Johnson knows some sort of new deal for Quebec must be at least alluded to. He says change can come by evolution - the ceding of federal powers to Quebec under the current federal system.
The idea of independence scares most Quebeckers, leaving pollsters and others doubtful that the separatists can pull off a victory.
But since the tripartite alliance between Parizeau, Bouchard, and Dumont formed in June, polls show support for "sovereignty" - the softer term separatists often use rather than independence - rising from about 45 percent to 52 percent.
However, a poll in March by the respected Quebec polling firm CROP showed 65 percent of Quebeckers wanting to remain part of Canada, despite unhappiness with the federal system.
Some pundits suggest that up to two-thirds of Dumont's supporters will vote "no" to remain a part of Canada.
The next step is expected as soon as Sept. 5, when Parizeau would recall the Quebec National Assembly to debate the wording of the referendum question. Although a date has not been set for the referendum, many expect it on Oct. 30 or perhaps a bit later.