Quebec Separatists in Sudden Retreat


After nearly a decade of steady political advancement toward their dream of creating a French-speaking nation in North America, Quebec’s separatists are in sudden, serious retreat in the face of a vigorous counterattack by Canada’s federal government.

The charge is being led by an unlikely captain: a 44-year-old intellectual named Stephane Dion who was recruited into politics just two years ago from the University of Montreal.

From his post as a member of Parliament and Cabinet minister in Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s government, Dion has combined a passion for argument with a disdain for conventional wisdom and has fundamentally changed the long-standing argument over Canada’s future.


Dion’s success is evident in opinion polls in Quebec--where support for separation has fallen precipitously--and in the ranks of the separatists, who are fighting among themselves over how to respond to his tactics.

At the same time, a small but highly visible extremist group has emerged on the fringes of the separatist movement, lending the secessionists an air of desperation. The group, called the Movement for the Liberation of Quebec, has threatened and attacked supporters of Canadian unity at public meetings and is suspected of painting swastikas and other graffiti on the homes of unity activists.

Montreal police also are investigating the planting of a crude gasoline bomb at one unity advocate’s home. The explosive did not ignite.

Both sides are preparing for what could be two crucial confrontations in the coming year. In February, the federal government will go before Canada’s Supreme Court and ask it to outlaw the process by which the Quebec government proposes to reach independence. Next fall, Quebec’s secessionist premier, Lucien Bouchard, may call an election seeking a new term in office. If he won, it would clear the way for a Quebec referendum, probably in 1999, in which Bouchard would ask voters to cut the province’s ties to Canada. He has indicated that he will go forward with a referendum regardless of how the Supreme Court rules.


The United States’ northern neighbor came within 50,000 votes of fracturing in the last referendum, in October 1995. The tiny margin by which Quebec voters rejected separation shocked most Canadians and sent U.S. scholars and officials in Washington scrambling to figure out how the U.S. would be affected by the breakup of its closest ally and largest trading partner.

The narrow vote also energized the separatists, who for the first time since the rise of the movement in the 1960s saw their goal within sight. Bouchard began to chip away at what he saw as the secessionists’ one weakness with voters: Quebec’s poor economy, which many argued could not support an independent state.


Bouchard’s government slashed at Quebec’s bloated bureaucracy and set about eliminating its budget deficit, the largest in any of Canada’s 10 provinces, by 2000.

Meanwhile, Chretien and his federalist allies appeared dazed and without a strategy. Polls began showing the separatists positioned for a close victory if another referendum took place.

But in the past few months, Dion, whose job as minister for intergovernmental affairs makes him responsible for Quebec policy, has turned that equation around by declaring repeatedly and unequivocally that, if Quebec wants a divorce, the rest of Canada may demand a lot of alimony.

Before Dion, the working assumption here was, more or less, that, if a majority of Quebec voters ever did endorse separation, the rest of Canada would open the door and step to the side. But Dion suggests that separation could only follow protracted and difficult negotiations in which Quebec would have few advantages.

His most potent argument has been that Quebec itself might be carved up in the process, with some heavily English-speaking regions remaining Canadian. The two most likely such areas are Quebec’s Far North, the source of the province’s lucrative hydroelectric power sales to the U.S., and Montreal, the province’s economic engine. Retaining those regions in Canada would impoverish a newly independent Quebec, and even talk of it stirs outrage among separatists.

Dion is careful not to personally advocate such a partition, but plenty of others are eager to do so, and the prospect clearly has unsettled Quebec voters.


“For sure, Dion’s approach has had a very significant effect here,” said Joan Fraser, director of Montreal’s Center for Research and Information on Canada and a seasoned Quebec political analyst. “It’s certainly the first time in quite a while that the federalists have gone on the offensive with an assertive position.

“I think the separatists have been quite rattled, and the undecided voters and thoughtful voters have been listening,” Fraser said. “He’s really tough. There’s clearly a resilience there. You have to admire him.”


Fraser describes Dion as somewhat reminiscent of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who also was plucked to enter politics from Quebec academia on the strength of his anti-separatist views. Trudeau went on to become Canada’s most influential postwar prime minister, although Fraser said she is not sure that Dion burns with the same ambition for higher office.

Apparently impressed by Dion’s pitbull-style attacks on separatism in the Quebec media and by the fact that he carried no political baggage, Chretien added him to the Cabinet in January 1996 and found a safe parliamentary district for him in a Montreal suburb.

Dion’s arrival here in the Canadian capital was treated as something of a novelty. The media made much of the fact that he carried his papers around in a backpack, as if he were still loping around campus between political science classes.

These days, Dion has graduated to a briefcase but he still speaks with the precision and candor one expects more from a college professor than from a politician. He embarks on an encyclopedic analysis of the breakup of Czechoslovakia or the Soviet Union, for example, to support his argument that there is no parallel to the Canada-Quebec situation in Eastern Europe.


But the passion of his beliefs also is apparent.

“What we are saying now is nothing, nothing, nothing in this country justifies secession,” he exclaimed in an interview, underscoring each “nothing” with a shake of his finger. “We may have disagreements, we may have problems, but Canada is an overall success, and Quebec is a success within Canada, and anyway, democracies don’t secede.”


He also acknowledged that many Canadians, including political allies, are uncomfortable confronting the difficult questions he has raised about the potential price of a breakup.

“The reason those questions have never been raised is because we Canadians don’t have the same sense of national tragedy you Americans and so many other people in the world have,” he said. “We have had the most soft history you can imagine. We think it is in our genes to have a peaceful time in peaceful cities.”

Bernard Landry, Quebec’s deputy premier and a veteran of the secessionist movement, dismisses Dion’s strategy as scare tactics bound to backfire in the long run.

Landry has also attributed the lower support for Quebec independence in the polls--as low as 42% in some surveys--to unease with the austerity program that the Bouchard government has imposed.

“The worst is behind us,” he predicted. “We will sail in more calm water the next two years.”