What Could Lie Ahead in a Disunited Canada

The separatists have a socialist agenda and the assurance of ultimate victory

ON Oct. 30, the province of Quebec will have its second referendum on independence in 15 years. From polling conducted during the seven-week-long referendum campaign, it appears Quebeckers are moving in the direction of sovereignty. But a sovereign Quebec promises to be even more socialist than the province already is, and this poses major problems for Quebec's 7 million citizens, for its business community, and for all who will be doing business with it.

While the side favoring independence has lost most of the polls conducted during the campaign, the relatively slim margins favoring a unified Canada reflect French Quebeckers' fluctuating feelings toward independence. The concept of sovereignty has grown enormously in popularity over the past several years, to the point where a significant plurality of French Quebeckers now favor it.

Next week's ''vote on independence,'' as it is known, will likely barely go down to defeat. The margin of defeat, perhaps a few percentage points, will come from a swing vote of Quebec's anglophone minority, who are almost unanimously federalist in persuasion. This will contrast with the 59.6 percent to 40.4 percent margin by which the last referendum on independence, in 1980, went down to defeat.

This narrowing margin of defeat disturbs federalists because it confirms the long-held suspicion that the political deck is stacked in favor of the sovereignists, or ''separatists.'' As time passes, the largest federalist voting block in Quebec, young, middle-class anglophones, is declining because of emigration to other parts of North America. These voters are concerned that independence will one day become a reality, of which they want no part. Also, Quebec has the most dirigiste economy in North America. Young, upwardly mobile individuals are finding it harder and harder to find employment there, and once they do, they often can't make ends meet.

The vote unto victory

It is conceivable that to achieve victory all the separatists have to do is continue to have referendums until they win more than 50 percent of the popular vote. There is no legal limit on the number of times the Quebec government can call such a vote. Therefore, if, say, the 10th referendum vote meets the threshold for victory but the previous nine did not, that vote would wipe out all previous ones. While the trumping power of these referenda seems unfair, it remains a political reality that, barring a constitutional challenge or legislative change, could clinch an eventual sovereignist victory.

What makes this situation worse is that the separatist movement in Quebec has traditionally been, and remains, anchored in socialist ideology. The disintegration of Canada would likely be followed by the emergence of a thoroughly socialist Quebec nation, something other North Americans should be aware of, as well as wary of.

This is one reason the independence movement resonates with so many voters. Apart from the obvious appeal of protecting the French language and culture in North America, there is a belief that an independent Quebec will bring with it a full-fledged, and much vaunted, social revolution. Since its inception in the early 1970s, the provincial Parti Quebecois has has promoted this idea. The Bloc Quebecois, the national separatist party, has also promoted it. The current referendum campaign reemphasizes this point.

A social revolution has enormous appeal for large portions of the population, including organized labor, much of the francophone youth, the women's movement, the unemployed and disaffected, the intellectual elite, and artists. In Quebec, these groups constitute an enormous segment of the voting population.

This revolution, or new social order, promises to bring full employment, a more equitable society for all citizens, and a lessened role for the marketplace in people's lives. Such rhetoric has pitted the labor and women's movements, francophone youth, and the unemployed and disaffected against the province's business leaders and other federalists, thereby creating an enormous class struggle.

Evidence of the struggle is apparent to anyone in Canada who has followed the referendum. Indeed, the president of Quebec's largest union was recently quoted as saying, ''What we [the separatists] are doing is unmasking the true face of capitalism in Quebec.'' In addition, the Parti Quebecois and Bloc Quebecois have attempted to convince Quebeckers that the federal government's recent feeble efforts to rein in its bloated deficit will lead to the gutting of social programs in Quebec, something separatist leaders promise will never happen once Quebeckers are ''maitres chez nous,'' roughly translated, ''in charge of our own affairs.''

A leftist tradition

Campaign rhetoric is often at variance with post-election political reality. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the people of Quebec have traditionally leaned left and the Parti Quebecois is, by any standard, a hard-line socialist party. Its 84-page vision of an independent Quebec fails to mention a single word about the private sector's role in creating jobs.

This does not bode well for the economy of an independent Quebec, where economic and trade policy will be the exclusive domain of Quebeckers, free of the moderating influences of other provinces and the federal government.

Ironically, many analysts have argued that the only way an independent Quebec could remain a viable entity with a first-world standard of living is if it became a free-trade haven, something akin to Hong Kong. Only this situation, they argue, would prevent an irreversible flight of capital from within. So, separatist leaders are faced with the dilemma of being able to achieve independence only if they promise their citizens a ''Sweden on the St. Lawrence,'' and being able to maintain it only if they deliver the ''Hong Kong of North America.''

Newly independent Quebeckers may well be unwilling to deregulate their economy. Thus Quebec would either have to rethink its move toward independence (probably out of the question) or accept a significantly lower standard of living.

In the final analysis, whether the separatists win or lose this referendum is moot. What matters is that Quebec is definitely moving in the direction of independence, and there seems to be little left to do but watch and wait.

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