The co-chairmen of a commission set up to help decide whether Quebec should remain a part of Canada have proposed a referendum on the matter by September in the French-speaking province.
The suggestion, contained in an internal working paper, showed a surprising tilt toward sovereignty on the part of the co-chairmen--surprising especially because their group was convened last year by federalists hoping to find ways to keep Quebec in Canada.
The new proposal does not necessarily mean that Quebec will vote on independence this fall. The commission is not scheduled to release its final recommendations until the end of March, and there is plenty of time for debates and reversals between now and then. Commission members are divided on the sovereignty issue, and the federalists are likely to try to squelch calls for a referendum.
And, even if there is a referendum, independence would not necessarily follow right away. The co-chairmen, Michel Belanger and Jean Campeau, recommended that a vote for sovereignty be followed by a two-year period during which the rest of Canada could respond.
Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau, whose organization stands for Quebec independence, called the recommendation good news. The Parti Quebecois has long advocated a referendum, the sooner the better. In 1980, Quebec voters rejected independence in a referendum on sovereignty. But now, poll after poll shows that--given the chance to vote again--Quebec Francophones would favor becoming a sovereign state.
Parti Quebecois strategists think that a yes vote for independence this year would force otherwise-reluctant English-speaking Canadians to face up to the facts, come to the bargaining table and negotiate an equitable separation between the English- and French-speaking provinces. Their wishes have been thwarted by the governing Liberal Party, which calls for negotiations on a new Canadian structure first--and a referendum later, but only if the negotiations fail.
The so-called Belanger-Campeau commission was put together in the wake of last year's failed Meech Lake constitutional accords. The accords were a package of constitutional amendments favorable to Quebec and intended to persuade the province to sign the Canadian constitution, something it has never done.
The accords died without being ratified, and Quebec's citizens took the failure as a sign that it was time to take their leave of Canada. But Quebec's Liberal Party called for a commission to consider Quebec's options before anything drastic was done. Those favoring sovereignity looked on the Belanger-Campeau commission with suspicion, noting that it was stacked with Liberals and might lean toward the federalist position.
But, as the commission began its hearings, Quebec's Liberal Party leader, Robert Bourassa, became ill with melanoma--the deadliest form of skin cancer--and required extended hospitalization in the United States. While he was gone, Quebec's Liberals seemed to lose their sense of direction, the separatists rallied and the commission ended up hearing an outpouring of demands for sovereignty.