Canada's election campaign has turned sharply from polite debate over tax cuts into a snarling fight over a visceral worry of many English-speaking Canadians: the sudden exit of French-speaking Quebec province.
Former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, one of the more hard-line of separatists, has suddenly revived Canada's big debate over unity. In a new book, excerpts of which were published May 7 in a Quebec City newspaper, Mr. Parizeau writes that had a slim majority voted "yes" in Quebec's secession referendum on Oct. 30, 1995, he would likely have declared independence within 10 days.
That revelation rudely jolted to life Canada's sleepy federal election campaign and threw leading separatists for a loop. Parizeau's statement is contrary to all previous separatist assurances that a smooth departure from Canada, including close economic ties, would be negotiated over a year's time.
"They did not tell the people the truth," Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrtien responded. "It's incredible to develop a plan without informing the people."
Parizeau, who is officially retired from politics, hotly denied last week that he would have executed the plan his book describes. But the damage to separatist credibility among many Quebeckers may already be done.
His remarks have torpedoed the separatist Bloc Quebecois led by Gilles Duceppe. "I don't know how he could have thought and written that," Mr. Duceppe told reporters of the published excerpts. "I don't know what world Mr. Parizeau is living in."
Only a day earlier, Duceppe had welcomed Parizeau back onto the hustings to help stump for the Bloc in the campaign for the June 2 national elections. But Duceppe has since backpedaled as fast as he can, saying he can no longer appear on the same platform with Parizeau.
Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, who also was intimately involved in helping Parizeau with the 1995 secession referendum campaign, denies that he ever knew anything about Parizeau's plan.
"This is a big deal," says Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. "It will have a bad effect on the sovereignist [secessionist] movement not only for present, but long into the future and during the next [secession] referendum campaign."
The worst damage to the separatists is with "soft nationalists," the swing voters on secession. They were reassured in 1995 by Mr. Bouchard and Parizeau that voting "yes" meant a gradual transition to a new partnership with Canada and no big disruptions.
Now Parizeau has made it hard for Bouchard to sell that message in the next secession referendum promised by 2000.
"It will be much harder for the sovereignty movement to be credible with soft nationalists," Professor Pelletier says. "The federalists will say to them: 'Think twice, because you cannot be sure what the government will do.' "
In undermining the Bloc, Parizeau has helped the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Chrtien, as well as Jean Charest's Conservative Party. Claude Gauthier, a pollster with Montreal-based CROP, says current figures show the Bloc may win only 40 to 45 seats in Parliament, compared with 54 seats in 1993.
Outside Quebec, Parizeau's writings have strengthened the western-based Reform Party lead by Preston Manning, who has long argued Canada needs a detailed "Plan B" in case Quebec decides to leave.
Parizeau's book, officially released today, is just in time to give opponents ammunition to fire at Duceppe tonight in a nationally televised election debate.
Parizeau's motives are not clear. Some say he hopes to discredit Bloc moderates, like Bouchard, who offer the hope of a partnership deal with Canada. Parizeau has never wanted a deal with Canada.