QUEBEC'S newly sworn-in premier says Quebec can separate from Canada, but no part of Quebec can declare itself independent of the province.
Refusing to acknowledge the inherent contradiction in his stand, Lucien Bouchard justifies his position by saying: ''Canada is divisible because it is not a real country.''
The leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois was reacting to news of divisive movements within Quebec. English speakers in the Montreal area, who voted to stay within Canada in the Oct. 30 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, are talking of staying in Canada by separating from Quebec. And Cree and Inuit Indians in the northern half of Quebec do not want to be part of an independent Quebec, whose basis for being is the French language and its ''distinct'' culture.
Speaking of Quebec, Mr. Bouchard says: ''It will never, never be partitioned.''
But Prime Minister Jean Chretien, speaking of the subject for the first time, disagrees with Bouchard. ''If Canada is divisible, Quebec is divisible, too,'' he said in Vancouver.
There are many in Quebec who do not want to follow the siren call of separation. The native people living in Quebec, including the Cree and Inuit, voted overwhelmingly in their own referendum Oct. 24 to reject any move by Quebec to take them out of Canada. The 12,000 Cree Indians and 6,000 Inuit are the only permanent residents in the 175,000 square mile sub-arctic region of northern Quebec. They live in a territory that did not belong to Quebec until it was granted to the province in 1898 and in 1912. Their land includes hydroelectric projects, the source of much of Quebec's wealth, and also its most vulnerable economic asset.
''In legal and logical terms Bouchard's claim that Quebec is indivisible is a double standard in the case of the Crees based on race,'' says Andrew Orkin, a Montreal lawyer who represents the Cree. ''To say that Quebec as a nation is homogenous and that it's territory is homogenous is, historically, an outright lie.''
Mr. Orkin points out the Crees' treaty rights to their land, and their relationship with Canada, are entrenched in the Constitution. But he explains, the southern ''partitionists'' could only take legal action if Quebec were to declare itself independent in a way in which Canada's federal government considered illegal.
The issue of whether a separate Quebec can itself be divided is one of first political challenges for Bouchard, who was sworn in as premier on Jan. 29.
Bouchard won the post without opposition, because he is seen as the man whose charisma helped the separatist cause win the October referendum on independence - the vote was 51 percent to 49 percent.
Since the referendum, there has been surprising support from those not wanting independence for letting rural Quebec - which votes separatists en bloc - go its own way and trim away the federalist parts in Montreal and on the edges near the American border, across the river from Ottawa, and near the Ontario border.
The talk of hiving off parts of Quebec was given new status when the new federal minister for intergovernmental affairs, Stefan Dion, mused about it just hours after taking office last week.
''You can't consider Canada divisible but the territory of Quebec sacred,'' said Mr. Dion, who until his appointment was a political science professor from Montreal.
''If there are native groups, municipalities, or regional municipalities who on a equally democratic basis decided they wanted to stay in Canada, you would have to talk to these people.''
Prime Minister Chretien and other federal politicians have jumped on the ''partition'' theme, perhaps seeing it as a way of destabilizing the separatists in Quebec. Until cabinet minister Dion brought it up, it was a political taboo.
''If Quebec divides, the natives in Quebec, the Cree, the Inuit in northern Quebec also have a case,'' says Jean Charest, a native Quebecker and the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. ''It's far from being clear that Quebec isn't divisible.''
Talk of the Balkanization of Quebec - political dynamite in the province - has French-speaking nationalists blind with rage. At its first provincial cabinet meeting on Jan. 29, Quebec separatists labeled those who want to break up the province as ''extremists''.
French-language newspapers reject the idea. There are even suggestions of violence not seen here since 1970 when Quebec separatists kidnapped and then released a British diplomat, Richard Cross. A few days later, Quebec's minister of labor, Pierre Laporte was kidnapped and killed.
''Nobody here was born with a peace gene. Those who float this partition plan are playing with fire,'' says Lysianne Gagnon a columnist at Montreal's La Presse. She predicts ''ethnic cleansing, Canadian style.''
Separatists smell victory in the next referendum, expected within the next two years. On Saturday, Bouchard called separation ''The last step in our journey as a people.'' The separatists are well ahead in the latest public-opinion polls. They have a charismatic leader. They don't want anyone messing with the map of their new country.