Quebec Secession at Center of Canada's Election

Ruling Liberals slip but still are likely to win big in Monday's national vote.

Canadians are set to vote Monday after a fast and furious 35-day campaign certain to be remembered as one of the most negative and divisive in the nation's history.

The country is deeply split along regional lines with Quebec's secession as the flash point and 9.6 percent unemployment, gun control, and social-safety-net cuts providing a bubbling stew of electoral discontent.

Standing on his driveway on a sunny May morning in Peterborough, southern Ontario, George Scott, a retiree, vents feelings he believes more than a few Canadians share."I'm fed up with everything. I've watched them [politicians] all. And I'm ready to turn them out."

Given such sentiments, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrtien must be casting an eye overseas at recent election results in France and Britain and wondering if he, too, will be punished for holding an early election.

Mr. Chrtien called for an election on April 27 based on strong poll results, 15 months shy of the government's full term.

But Canadians have a habit of penalizing politicians who make them vote before they have to. Most polls show his Liberal Party leading by a wide margin - yet slipping some in the home stretch.

The Liberals have proved to be far weaker in the west and in the Atlantic provinces than Chrtien had hoped. In Quebec, Liberals are fighting to hold onto the 19 seats they won as part of their sweeping 1993 victory. Ontario alone remains a Liberal bastion.

"My own guess is that Chrtien will come back with another majority government," says Reg Whitaker, a political scientist at York University in Toronto.

"But it's not surprising there would be a strong reaction from the rest of the country over [the Bloc Quebecois (BQ)] secessionists" being elected the official opposition in 1993, he says.

That "reaction," he says, is the Reform Party. Led by Preston Manning, Reform has given voice to the nation's anti-Quebec mood in its popular "boot the Bloc" campaign. Mr. Manning is also hoping to expand into Ontario, where his party staged a late campaign blitz that focused on crime.

Here in the heart of Ontario's lake country, Tom McMillan is hoping Reform's hard-line approach backfires - and for the Phoenix-like revival of his Progressive Conservative (PC) party, the nation's oldest.

A veteran of five election campaigns, Mr. McMillan is running as a PC candidate and hopes PC leader Jean Charest's sudden swell of popularity in Quebec will spread to Ontario.

Canada's Tories were nearly wiped off the electoral map in the 1993 election, left with just two of 177 seats the party previously held.

"We're counting on coattails from Charest to win here," he says of the Peterborough voting district, long an Ontario bellwether. "If we're going to turn the tide [nationally] we have to start here."

Few think Mr. Charest's Tories have even a remote chance to defeat the Liberals to control the next government. But coming in second place is another matter.

Charest's strength has been building in Quebec at the expense of the separatist Bloc Quebecois, whose support has crumbled during the past three weeks of disastrous flaps and missteps of its leader, Gilles Duceppe.

Charest got a boost from the recent all-candidate debates, where he turned in a polished and powerful performance.

But polls show him only barely in second place nationally with 19 percent to the Liberal's 41 percent. The Reform Party, led by Manning, is at 18 percent, the New Democratic Party at 11 percent, and the BQ at 10 percent.

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