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Provinces Brainstorm on Issue of Quebec Secession

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Summers are fleeting in Canada, and so are respites from the great national debate over whether Quebec’s separatists can rend the country by leading their French-speaking province to independence.

Already last Sunday, it was gray and damp and the temperature was in the 40s when the elected leaders of the nation’s 11 English-speaking provinces and territories gathered here at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. They came hoping to find a common strategy for fighting the Quebec secessionists, met behind closed doors for nearly 12 hours and left with an agreement only to hold more meetings--a series of public hearings all over the country between now and Christmas, asking any Canadians who care to attend what they think ought to be done.

The rather extraordinary gathering--as if the governors of 49 states were to discuss amending the U.S. Constitution--was surrounded by the theatrics associated with what is sardonically referred to in Canada as the “national unity industry.” It is an aspect of political and intellectual life that has flourished since the separatist movement was born about 30 years ago.

Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow opted for doomsday rhetoric. “It’s two or three minutes to midnight,” he intoned, referring to the prospect of the separatists winning the next referendum on secession.

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Canadian television geared up to broadcast coverage of the event, bringing in talking heads to solemnly discuss whether Quebec is a “distinct society” within Canada or merely a “unique culture.” Dozens of Canadian journalists, many of whom have devoted their careers to covering this issue, volleyed questions at the politicians in English and French.

The meeting was instigated by the expectation that the separatist premier of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, will call a provincial election as soon as next spring. If he wins a second term--and he is ahead in the polls--Bouchard plans to ask Quebecers once more to vote on secession, the third such ballot since 1980. The last time, in 1995, 49.4% of the voters opted for separation, and, ever since, Canadian federalists have been arguing over the best way to prevent a referendum from succeeding.

Not surprisingly, Bouchard turned down an invitation to come to Calgary. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, widely criticized for underestimating the strength of the separatists in the 1995 referendum, was pointedly not invited.

The upcoming public hearings will focus on possible government restructuring or constitutional amendments guaranteeing that the Quebec government could do pretty much what it wanted to in preserving its French language, protecting its culture and maintaining its French-based civil law without serious interference from the rest of the country.

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Such changes would blunt Bouchard’s separatist appeal--or so goes the theory. But English-speaking Canadians remain deeply suspicious of anything suggesting special rights for Quebec, and they have killed similar proposals in the past.

The provincial leaders here papered over their own disagreements on the subject by releasing a statement of principles deliberately vague enough to be embraced by everyone.

“We’re not saying anything specific, I don’t believe, other than, ‘We love you [Quebec], and we want you to stay in Canada,’ ” Ontario Premier Mike Harris said.

While there was a surge in popular concern about Quebec after the narrowness of the last referendum’s defeat, it has ebbed. For example, barely 100 people showed up for a “United Canada” rally here after organizers predicted at least 1,000.


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