October 24, 2005

Quebec restless a decade after failed referendum

By David Ljunggren

QUEBEC CITY, Quebec (Reuters) - A decade after a referendum
on whether Quebec should break away from Canada failed by a
whisker, the pro-independence movement in the French-speaking
province is anxious to try its luck again.

Fury about a federal government patronage scandal has
pushed support among Quebecers for sovereignty above 50 percent
in some opinion polls, a level not seen for years. The
separatist Parti Quebecois says it will call another referendum
quickly if it wins the next provincial election, likely in

"We must win. We must win," said Agnes Maltais, who chairs
the caucus of Parti Quebecois legislators in the provincial

"We don't hate Canada. It's just that ... we don't have a
place in this Canadian vision any more. It doesn't fit in with
the aspirations that Quebec has for itself," she told Reuters.

A Parti Quebecois government introduced Quebec's last
referendum on sovereignty, which took place on October 30,
1995. In the final tally, just 54,000 votes separated the
pro-Canada camp from the separatists, who gained 49.4 percent

The close result was a huge shock to the federal government
in Ottawa, which pumped government advertising money into
Quebec to try to ease separatist feelings and thereby ensure
Canada never lived through such drama again.

Yet 10 years later many in the province of 8 million people
remain unhappy with their place inside a predominantly
English-speaking Canada of 32 million.

Uneasy relations between the two communities stretch back
to when the French, the first to settle what is now Canada,
were forced to hand over control of their territory to Britain
in the mid-18th century.

Canada gained its independence in 1867, but Quebec
francophones complained they were second-class citizens in a
province dominated by English-speakers.

It was not until the mid-20th century that francophones
started to press seriously for their rights and in 1976 they
voted in the first Parti Quebecois provincial government, which
moved aggressively to promote French language and culture.


The attractive narrow streets of Quebec City are now alive
with French, which by law must dominate even store signs.

Separatists admit their culture is on sturdier ground than
it was before 1976, but they say Canada's federal system still
gives Ottawa too much control over taxes and legislation.

"I feel like a teen-ager in a house with very strict
parents who won't let me out to experience life properly," said
delivery man Jean Lesage. "We have a strong industrial base,
vast amounts of hydroelectric power and lots of resources --
who says we couldn't survive on our own?"

The federal Liberals, wary of clashing with separatists
over sensitive topics such as culture and language, are also
happy to use economic arguments. They say an independent Quebec
would be crushed in an era increasingly dominated by giants
like China and India.

"I don't believe that anybody's children, given the
opportunities that we have as Canada, are going to (want to) be
in a country of 8 million people," Prime Minister Paul Martin
told Quebec journalists this month.

Martin's approach reflects another challenge for the
separatists, since there is little chance the federal
government will be as complacent it was in 1995.

Jean Chretien, prime minister at the time, was absent from
the stuttering pro-federal campaign and seemed oblivious to the
dangers. When he finally realized the separatists could win, he
broke down and cried in front of his parliamentary caucus.

The government subsequently pushed through legislation
making it harder for provinces to break away.


But ironically, it was a more subtle policy that boosted
secessionist sentiment.

Ottawa poured money into Quebec through a sponsorship
program designed to boost the federal image, plastering the
province with the maple leaf flag and sponsoring trade shows.

The program was deeply flawed and, in a scandal that still
dominates Canadian politics, C$100 million was funneled to
firms with close Liberal ties. Quebecers were outraged.

"There was a visceral reaction that we were deceived, that
they stole our money and tried to steal our identity," said

But Benoit Pelletier, intergovernmental minister with
Quebec's increasingly unpopular governing Liberal party, said
the Parti Quebecois ran the risk of being overconfident.

"We are also confident of winning the next election ...
We're very confident that up until that moment we'll (continue
to) win support and there won't be another referendum," he told

The Parti Quebecois -- notorious both for infighting and
the hefty influence from hard-liners who will brook no delay in
pushing for independence -- is looking for a new leader.

The favorite is 39-year-old Andre Boisclair, a charismatic
openly gay legislator who could be damaged by the admission he
used cocaine while the party was last in power.

"The cause of sovereignty is even stronger in 2005 than it
was in 1995 ... It's impossible to manage Quebec with the tools
we have in the province," he told Reuters.

Surprisingly, this message is now under fire from a most
unlikely source.

Lucien Bouchard, the firebrand separatist leader who almost
pulled off victory in the 1995 referendum, said last week
Quebec should focus on problems such as high taxes, low
population growth and an enormous debt.

"If you're saying to me that we must achieve sovereignty
first to settle this, that's not what I think," Bouchard, who
quit politics in 2001, said after launching a manifesto calling
for radical changes to the way the province is run.