Appeasing Quebec Proves Even Harder

CANADIAN Prime Minister Jean Chretien is getting a chilly reception nationwide to his new proposals to recognize Quebec's unique cultural status and satisfy its craving for more autonomy.

Quebeckers not firmly committed to separating from Canada - a slim majority - had been waiting to see what the prime minister had up his sleeve. Yesterday, Mr. Chretien formally unveiled a proposal to grant Quebec and other provinces a veto over constitutional change, cede federal powers over labor-market training, and formally recognize Quebec as a ''distinct'' society.

But the proposals fall far short of the major constitutional reform many say is needed to keep separatists at bay. And it will be unclear for several weeks at least whether the prime minister has made a savvy move - or shot himself in the foot.

A separatist spokesman for the Bloc Quebecois dismissed the reforms as ''an empty shell.'' And they were greeted with skepticism in British Columbia and Alberta, which oppose Quebec's special status.

''How ... can [Chretien] unify the country by giving a constitutional veto to people who want to break it up, that's not just bizarre, that's crazy,'' complained Preston Manning, leader of the western-based Reform Party.

Although aimed at winning over Quebec's ''soft nationalists,'' some said the offer would produce disappointment and further fan separatist sentiment.

''This plan won't go far in Quebec,'' predicts Guy Laforest, at Laval University in Quebec City.

Rising support for Quebec sovereignty may have compelled Chretien to act, analysts say. Latest polls show support for separation in Quebec at 54 percent and rising.

With Lucien Bouchard, the popular separatist politician about to take over as premier, it is a dangerous trend that has not gone unnoticed in Ottawa. There is also concern that Mr.Bouchard might call for an early election, using his popularity to win a mandate to secede. The federal proposals are a bid to take the wind out of Bouchard's sails by having him publicly show that he only wants separation.

In announcing his moves a few weeks after federalists won a hair's-breadth victory in a referendum on Quebec's sovereignty, Chretien said his plan ''delivered the goods'' by fulfilling his promise to change the federal system.

''No one here in Ottawa really knows what the heck to do,'' says John Chenier, Ottawa-based author of several political newsletters. ''People here understand now that losing Quebec is no longer a remote possibility.''

Yet Chretien is limited in what he can do for Quebec, lacking support among the other provinces for any change that appears to set Quebec above the rest. Even his ruling Liberal Party is divided on how to proceed.

But Mr. Chenier says the mostly hostile reaction to Chretien's latest proposals is finally awakening Ottawa to the fact that the old equation for satisfying Quebec's aspirations has changed. ''The mood in Quebec is no longer that Quebeckers want to leave Canada because they feel unwelcome in Canada - it's simply that they want to leave,'' he says. ''So there's not much Chretien or anyone else can offer based on past proposals.''

Gloom hangs over Ottawa, according to some, because many in government say that while the new proposal has been described as a ''first step,'' it is really the only one Chretien is able to take at this point.

''There's a significant body of people inside the government who think Quebec is already basically gone,'' says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political consultant. ''They think the federal government has lost this thing and that it's not a question of 'if' but 'when' Quebec will separate.''

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