Quebec's Close Call on Separation May Bring Concessions by Canada

Separatists' slim loss boosts demands for a 'distinct society'

STEPHANIE FORTIER was in tears. Her youthful dreams of an independent Quebec were shattered. John Urge, who came to Montreal as a Yugoslav refugee in 1956, was crying softly, too. But his were tears of joy. His country - Canada - had been saved.

Those scenes were multiplied thousands of times as Quebec stepped back from the brink of secession Oct. 30. Adding to the emotion was the breathtakingly narrow 50.6 to 49.4 percent margin by which the mostly French-speaking province voted against independence.

Despite losing the chance at nationhood, the vote has made abundantly clear that the status quo is a nonstarter and that Quebec's quest for recognition as a "distinct society" will have to be met soon if it is to remain within Canada.

In the short run, the vote has amplified rather than diminished many Quebeckers' sense of injustice done them and their ancestors.

Still, the crisis could also prompt a renewal of Canada if Prime Minister Jean Chretien were to lead the country to adopt constitutional changes that finally bring harmony to the descendants of the two nations - England and France - which founded this 128-year-old country.

"We have every reason to be proud of a democracy where citizens can peacefully debate the very existence of their country," he said. "We must now develop innovative solutions so that we never again have to go through similar circumstances."

With Canadian unity spared at least temporarily, frazzled financial markets cheered, as did Mr. Chretien.

And it has bought time and a new urgency that may convince the other provinces to help heal the rift between them and Quebec since it began to seek increased autonomy and status as a "distinct society."

But the vote also fell along stark linguistic and ethnic lines that has many observers worried about surging ethnic nationalism. Still, it signaled that the majority in Quebec want to work out their differences within Canada, not in a new country.

Quebec is now even more bitterly divided between the French-heritage Quebecois and those of immigrant or English heritage.

"It's true that we were beaten, but by whom? Money and ethnic votes," Premier Jacques Parizeau said after the vote, referring to big business, which had warned of drastic consequences for the economy after independence. At one point he promised to "exact revenge" by never giving up his dream of independence.

Local analysts, however, said that what rose to the surface in Parizeau's remarks was simply a deeply held, but much denied aspect of the separatist campaign.

"This country is divided just as Quebec is divided," says Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University. "It is split along ethnic lines and that's the problem for Canada's future."

In 1980 Quebeckers rejected by a margin of 60 to 40 percent a referendum question on secession. Then a new Canadian Constitution, adopted over Quebec's objections in 1982, reignited Quebeckers' feelings that their province was getting short shrift from "English Canada." To bridge that gap, constitutional compromises were attempted in 1990 and 1992 that would have recognized Quebec as a "distinct society." They didn't pass.

To woo undecided voters dissatisfied with the status quo, Chretien in an emotional speech in downtown Montreal Oct. 27 declared that "we will do what we have to do" - alluding to constitutional changes he has resisted.

Yet many newly radicalized "Yes" supporters are unconvinced. "I don't believe Mr. Chretien when he makes his promises," says Veronique Pagnoux, a "Yes" supporter leaving a polling station. "I think at first people didn't want to separate - but they did want to change. It may be too late now for Canada."

There is also a feeling among "Yes" supporters that little can be done to change Quebec's current course toward nationhood. Another secession referendum is assured, they say. Their leaders agree. "To see it escape our grasp is hard to bear," said Lucien Bouchard, the Bloc Quebec leader in a concession speech.

The charismatic separatist leader is credited with singlehandedly reviving the flagging "No" campaign earlier this month. Some said his style was to excite tensions between the French majority and the English-and-immigrant minority.

"It's terribly depressing," says Michael Bliss, a historian in Toronto. "I think we're seeing, frankly, an upsurge of ethnic nationalism. If you want to call it racial nationalism, that would be accurate."

Bouchard and Parizeau have been criticized for creating an us vs. them atmosphere in the runup to the vote, referring to English speakers and immigrants who speak neither French or English as les autres - or "the others." But there is another aspect to Bouchard's unusual charismatic appeal to Quebeckers.

"It's basically an emotional thing, something that Anglophones [English speaking Canadians] can't connect with," says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political analyst. "Nationalism is a real force in Quebec and Bouchard resonates, evokes a visceral response from Quebeckers ... His is the style of a preacher."

Analysts agree the federal government is now in a tough spot. Separatists have predicted the federal government is about to drop the hammer on federally funded programs benefitting the province. It does appear that Ottawa may have been holding back cuts to Quebec in an effort not to give separatists added ammunition prior to the big vote.

The narrow vote puts pressure on Chretien and Ottawa to be more generous to Quebec even as foreign lenders put the squeeze on Ottawa to cut back its high deficits. Chretien must now figure out a way to pacify both the creditors and the nearly-new-nation of Quebec. And he will have to bring together a coalition of provinces to give Quebec what they have long resisted: special status.

The tight win was welcomed by Anglophones who worried about possibly having to move from Quebec.

"This is a huge relief," said Michael Scott, clearing up dirty dishes at a party to watch the referendum returns. "At least now we have a smidgen of a chance to fix the problem. The other way we would have been in the soup."

But it will not be an easy task given the mistrust and alienation and desire for autonomy now felt by most Francophones.

"I don't think it's a victory for them," says Pierre Laliberte, a "yes" supporter for nationhood, his face with a large blue fleur-de-lis painted on each cheek."It's just a matter of time. There will always be a referendum."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.