Vote Is History, but Question Of Quebec's Future Lingers


CANADA'S political topography is changing rapidly as aftershocks from Monday's referendum on Quebec secession ripple through the country, toppling or damaging what appeared to be sturdy foundations.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien faces a difficult fight to persuade the rest of Canada to accept a package of proposals to happify Quebec. He ran into immediate opposition to a new deal for Quebec in Parliament Tuesday. Many now doubt he can find a winning formula before another Quebec referendum.

Things were even tougher for Mr. Chretien's long time nemesis, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, whose long political career suddenly crumbled to dust. On Tuesday he unexpectedly announced his resignation. A political war horse who revived the separatist cause in the 1980s, he was expected to be around much longer.

''Quebeckers have indicated to their neighbors and to the world that they must be recognized as a people,'' he said of the narrow defeat in which 49.4 percent of Quebeckers voted to leave Canada. But Mr. Parizeau, while respected, was never able to win the love of Quebeckers that came so naturally to his counterpart, Lucien Bouchard. Mr. Bouchard, who led a come-from-behind rally that came within a whisker of winning Monday, is the natural next choice to be premier of Quebec. He is leader of the 53 separatist members of the Bloc Quebecois in Canada's House of Commons.

Parizeau's resignation came only a year after his separatist Party Quebecois (PQ) won power in Quebec and a day after it did well enough in the referendum that many were calling the loss a clear ''moral victory.'' (About 60 percent of French-speaking Quebeckers voted in favor of separating from Canada.)

Intemperate remarks criticized

But his intemperate remarks after the narrow defeat blamed non-French-speaking ''ethnics'' in Quebec for stealing the separatist victory.

Parizeau also told thousands of brooding, disappointed supporters of independence that there would be a temptation to ''exact revenge'' on those who caused the defeat. The nationally televised comments were instantly reviled by those within and without his own party.

''I was glad he resigned,'' says Daniel Guimond, a restaurant waiter who voted to separate from Canada. ''I didn't like him as premier. And those remarks he made were too harsh.''

Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow agreed that Parizeau's resignation, which takes effect at the end of the year, would be good for Quebec and good for the country.

''In some ways its a very healing act,'' he said, ''a healing development for Quebec and Canada.''

There is speculation, however, that an even more potent foe of Canada will take Parizeau's place. Bouchard's charismatic cross-country campaigning nearly gave the separatists a victory. Bouchard met yesterday with party officials to discuss whether he would seek Parizeau's job as leader of the PQ and premier of Quebec.

While the referendum changed the Quebec political scene, it had a major impact on Ottawa as well. Even the referendum's most obvious ''winner'' seems to have lost. For Chretien, the narrow win by federalist forces keeps Quebec within Canada - for the time being. But the microscopic margin of victory fell far short of expectations.

Chretien has made broad promises to revamp the federal system and recognize Quebec as a ''distinct society.''

Now the question is: Can he deliver? Even the Quebec district he represents voted in favor of secession from Canada.

''I don't think the prime minister learned a thing'' from the referendum results, said Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party in parliamentary debate Tuesday. He accused Chretien of being ''tiresome, vague, and meaningless.''

''Chretien's been weakened,'' says Reginald Whitaker, a political scientist at York University. ''He's lost a lot of credibility for his mishandling of this issue. And the separatists, who did rather well, will still face problems without Parizeau.''

Many of the same promises - for official recognition in the Constitution of Quebec as a ''distinct society'' and of other privileges, including a constitutional veto, have been rejected before by Canadians. Gordon Gibson, author of ''Plan B,'' an examination of the consequences of Quebec secession, says it is far from clear that Chretien can manage the hand-off of federal power to Quebec along with a constitutional veto and recognition as a distinct society.

''It's at least questionable whether the government of Quebec will actively work to improve the Constitution of a federalist Canada,'' says the author, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

''Whatever is done must not be crafted as a concession to Quebec. Then it is guaranteed to fail in western Canada. You have [to present] it as something good for all the provinces of Canada.''

Even the mercurial Bouchard, who has been Canada's Teflon politician, could go bump if he is not careful.

''Separatist forces are in a bit of disarray,'' says Bruce Campbell, a political consultant in Ottawa. ''Whoever takes over Parizeau's job will have to do a lot of budget-cutting. The PQ didn't want to do it before the vote. But they're under pressure to reduce the deficit, and it's going to hurt their relations with unions.''

Keeping the campaign going

But not everyone sees the separatist forces in disarray.

''Maybe it's a good thing Parizeau is resigning,'' says Robert Boily, a University of Montreal political scientist.

''The leadership campaign will need a few months, so it keeps the energy level going of party workers and the people,'' he says.

Karine Poirer, a cashier who voted to separate from Canada, also agrees Parizeau's resignation is a good thing.

''Now we can have Lucien Bouchard,'' she says. ''He's our man.''

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