Tug of Heartstrings May Pull Quebec Away From Canada

'WE the people of Quebec, through the voice of our national assembly, proclaim: Quebec is a sovereign country.'' Those and 1,500 other lyric words brought tears to the eyes of provincial Premier Jacques Parizeau and other hardened separatists. ''We entered the [Canadian] federation on the faith of a promise of equality,'' read the preamble to Quebec's would-be declaration of independence. ''But what was to follow did not live up to those early hopes....'' But the question is: Will such nationalist sentiment, to be conveyed in an advertising blitz in the next 46 days, make undecided voters cry for independence, too? A scramble is on between separatist and federalist forces, trying to woo a small group of about 500,000 undecided Quebec voters between now and the Oct. 30 referendum on Quebec's sovereignty. Building emotional momentum is a key part of the game plan for Quebec's separatists. Their strategists know it will be difficult to get even a simple majority to vote ''yes'' unless their message can reach Quebeckers' heartstrings - and pluck them. A recent poll indicates efforts to win over ''soft nationalists'' - those who prefer nationhood only if there are explicit ties to Canada - has succeeded to some degree. It showed 50.2 percent of those polled would vote yes, (to sovereignty - or independence) with 49.8 percent saying ''no.'' Still, today's close race would have been unthinkable prior to a June alliance between the province's three separatist leaders. That deal resulted in a softening of Mr. Parizeau's hard-line approach to independence to include an offer of political and economic ties with Canada after independence. After the deal, support for sovereignty jumped from around 40 percent to its present level. Still, most analysts remain unconvinced that the yes side will win. ''I would never say it is impossible for the 'yes' to win, but the bigger probability is with 'no,' '' says Claude Gauthier, chief of research at CROP, a Montreal polling firm. ''But the real campaign has only just begun for the 'no' side - the 'yes' has been campaigning unopposed all summer.'' Federalist forces, however, are geared up and ready to react with lightening speed to attacks of the separatist camp. One of the federalists' main goals will be to puncture the myth of sovereignty. Sovereignty is the fuzzy word for independence favored by separatists keen not to scare off the soft nationalists. It has been promoted as ''independence'' while still safely within an European Union-style union with Canada. Independence and ''separation'' are the hard-edged words federalists like Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and opposition leader Daniel Johnson use to hammer home their theme: ''If Quebec leaves, it will get no special treatment from Canada.'' If Quebeckers think that a yes will mean complete separation, then pollster Gauthier predicts only 45 percent will vote yes. If, on the other hand, voters think there will be economic and political links after independence, the yes side could win with a very small majority of 50.2 or 50.3 percent, he says. Who will Quebeckers believe? Lobsters may figure prominently in the credibility debate. Parizeau, speaking to foreign diplomats recently, made the analogy that once Quebeckers vote 'yes' to some vague language on sovereignty, they will be like trapped lobsters, unable to avoid going to full independence. That apparent cynicism has added to voter's unease with Parizeau. Parizeau knows his credibility with voters is weak. So he is counting on two supersalesmen who are the province's most popular politicians: Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament - and Mario Dumont, the youthful leader of the Action Democratique du Quebec, which represents soft nationalists. The trio will argue that confederation with Canada has been an abysmal failure, with English culture riding roughshod over French culture. According to Parizeau, Quebec's power in the federation was unilaterally diluted during the 1982 adoption of a new Constitution under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Separatists are hoping that history will repeat itself this fall. Quebec nationalism reached its zenith after the failed 1989 Meech Lake Accords, which were to have granted Quebec status as a ''distinct society.'' On the heels of that perceived slap against Quebec, demonstrators in Ontario were videotaped stomping on a Quebec flag - a segment played relentlessly on Quebec TV. One flag-stomping incident is all he needs, said Parizeau recently, to put independence over the top in the vote. But Chretien's forces are urging the rest of Canada to keep cool. He has urged other provincial leaders to refrain from making remarks that might make separatist ammunition. Some think it would take a major incident to change the tide of opinion favoring a safe, united Canada - versus stepping into the unknown. ''I think this referendum has come too late,'' says Dale Thomson, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal. ''People might have been ready for when their aspirations for independence [in the 1970s] were on the rise. But now we're in slushy period of broad uncertainty, when the main concern of most people is finding or keeping a job.''

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