Canada's Word Games Become Power Play for National Unity

Suddenly, the two biggest words in Canada's political lexicon are Quebec's "unique character," a phrase being hailed as a possible solution to Canada's national-unity conundrum.

Can two words really be the Holy Grail of Canadian politics - a description that satisfies Quebec but does not alienate the other nine provinces that reject "special status" for La Belle Province?

Stphane Dion, Prime Minister Jean Chrtien's point man on national unity, hopes so. Mr. Dion last week hailed the "unique character" phrase that popped out of this month's meeting of nine of Canada's provincial premiers. Quebec's separatist premier, Lucien Bouchard, boycotted the meeting, which he called a waste of time.

Pressure has been building for a phrase to describe Quebec's culture upon which could be built a new push for national unity. An olive branch to the swing vote, which makes up less than 20 percent of the Quebec electorate, is crucial to deciding whether Quebec stays in Canada or goes.

Two years ago, Quebeckers voted to remain part of Canada - by just 55,000 votes. Next spring, Quebec will hold a provincial election. After that, if separatists win again as seems likely, another referendum will be held on secession.

Since the harrowing 1995 referendum, Prime Minister Chrtien has tried unsuccessfully to generate interest among provincial premiers in joining in a national-unity push. With the economy rebounding after a long recession, delving into any kind of serious constitutional debate has been considered political poison at the provincial level.

But after a Supreme Court case in February examining the separation issue, the premiers changed their minds and decided to try their hand after all at a new national unity formula. The beauty of "unique character" it seems, is that it can apply equally to all provinces.

Not everyone says "unique character" is the semantic answer to the nation's unity difficulties. Mr. Bouchard heaped scorn on the premiers' seven-point unity proposal and called its reference to Quebec's unique character "a trap."

"What a discovery," he said at a press conference earlier this month. "Quebeckers are unique. Like everyone. Unique like the Regina choir or the Escoumins River; unique like the SkyDome, Cape Breton ... and Wayne Gretzky."

What the premiers demonstrated, he added, is that "if Quebeckers want to be recognized as a people ... there's only one way to get there - that's for a majority to vote for sovereignty the next time."

Despite his comments, new polls released in Montreal newspapers over the weekend show separatist sentiment among the important "soft nationalist" voters has weakened in several important areas. A poll published in the Quebec daily Le Soleil showed that a substantial group - 47 percent of Quebeckers - approved of the premiers' "unique character" proposal for Quebec within Canada.

Analysts say it is remarkable that such a large group rejects Bouchard's and other separatists' contention that all options have been exhausted and separation from Canada is the only hope. Even separatists seem to recognize the inroads the "unique character" argument is making in Quebec.

When asked about the polls, Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois acknowledges the challenge separatists face. "We have a lot of work to do," he says.

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