Quebec's vote for separatists was not a vote for secession

Alliance Quebec, the main organization representing the rights of Quebec's English-speaking minority, strongly opposes the separation of the province from Canada. The Parti Qubcois (PQ) fights for secession.

Yet when Quebec voters returned the PQ and Premier Lucien Bouchard to power Nov. 30, William Johnson, president of the Alliance, was delighted. The "best possible" outcome, he told a Boston audience.

One reason is that most Quebecers rejected separatism, despite the PQ victory. Thus Canada should remain intact for years to come.

That's good news for Americans. Washington does not relish an unstable regime to the north.

Though the PQ won 75 of the 125 seats in the provincial legislature, it received only 42.7 percent of the popular vote. The anti-separatist Quebec Liberal Party won only 48 seats, yet got 1 percent more of the vote. A third party that also opposes separation, the fiscally conservative Action Democratique, saw its vote jump from 7 percent to 12 percent. It won only one seat in the legislature.

Mr. Johnson concludes that at least 57 percent of Quebec voters don't want a referendum calling for separation. And probably more, because not all PQ voters want to break up Canada. They merely approved of Mr. Bouchard's management of the provincial economy.

Bouchard saw clearly the end of his separatist dream. His victory party was hardly a party.

"It was as though he was at a funeral," recalls Johnson. "He was terribly distraught."

Johnson offers another reason for his cheer at the election results. Whenever the PQ is in power, he says, popular support for separatism drops. Whenever the Liberals are in power, separatism thrives.

This oddity arises because the Liberals are always competing for the "soft" vote. These are French-speakers who prize their language and culture. But separation? Maybe. Maybe not.

To win over those voters, the Liberals, when in power, push for the transfer of more governmental powers from federal Canada to Quebec. The result is a fight with Ottawa and other provinces over these powers. The fuss persuades some Quebecers that the province is hard done by. In reality, Canada has probably the world's most decentralized federation. Provinces have major powers, far more than the states have in the US. Dissatisfied voters think the PQ can win more concessions from Ottawa.

Johnson would prefer Canada refrain from the constitutional conventions that stirred up the view in recent decades that the nation doesn't work well. He thinks it does. And 80 percent to 90 percent of Canadians say Canada is the best country in the world to live in.

PQ governments want a separate state, not a more powerful province. So, when in office, they don't push for merely a transfer of some new governmental function to Quebec City.

With that separation goal in mind, in this past election the PQ attempted "to slander, defame, and demonize the rest of Canada," Johnson says. In its campaign, it charged the mostly English-speaking provinces with desiring a weak Quebec.

"Bouchard pitched very strong on [Quebec French] tribalism and he failed," the bilingual Johnson says.

Johnson thinks separatism peaked in 1990. The 1995 referendum, which came close to winning a majority yes vote, was misperceived. It was worded in a way he saw as saying, "Are you in favor of secession - wink, wink."

Another reason Johnson figures separatism is fading is an August Supreme Court advisory opinion. Quebec, the court ruled, does have a right to secede - only if a "clear majority" vote for separation in a clearly worded referendum. The rest of Canada would be obliged to negotiate terms of secession as if it were a constitutional amendment. That would involve other issues. Rights of native minorities, who almost all oppose separation, would need to be considered. It would involve a loss of some territory by Quebec.

Johnson regards secession as "a pipe dream ... mythology ... a horror, a nightmare ... not realizable."

He's probably right.

* David Francis is senior economic correspondent for the Monitor and a Canadian citizen.

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