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After Seven Years, Quebec Has Lost Its Separatist Itch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Danielle Dubois, a Roman Catholic nun from an old Quebec family, works at a shrine devoted to her order’s 17th century founder, an icon of Quebec nationalism.

Sister Danielle has long been a reliable vote for the independence movement here--but no more.

“I don’t like separatism now,” she said firmly, locking the doors at the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. She gets along well with the English speakers in her convent, she said, and has come to believe that “we can get along with the rest of Canada the same way.”

In 1995, Quebec stunned the rest of the country when it came within a percentage point of embracing sovereignty. Now Quebec’s independence movement appears to be sliding into steep and perhaps terminal decline.

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The party that was separatism’s driving force is reeling from a string of recent election defeats, and polls show that most Quebecers--like Sister Danielle--are less and less inclined to challenge Canadian federal rule.

Enthusiasm for independence peaked a decade ago, when two-thirds of the population backed a break with Canada; today, barely two-fifths want to sever the Ottawa link, with support eroding most notably among younger French speakers. “Something has snapped,” said Alain Gagnon, the director of the Quebec Studies program at McGill University here.

In the last few years, Quebec’s most prominent independence crusaders have died or retired, and a fixation on the unresolved conflict with Ottawa suddenly seems retrograde, analysts on both sides say.

Quebecers still want full control of fiscal and social policies, still bridle at loyalty oaths to the queen, and still prefer their blue fleur-de-lis to the red Canadian maple leaf.

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But a new generation of entrepreneurs, artists and opinion-makers here is looking beyond Canada for its challenges and opportunities, and politicians who preach the separatist gospel are facing unaccustomed rejection.

The Parti Quebecois, the independence champion that has governed the province for most of the last 25 years, was soundly defeated in all eight by-elections held in the last year, including three last month. Local polls now show Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s Liberal Party with a commanding 10- to 15-percentage-point lead over the Quebecois party, which must call new provincial elections next year.

Most crushing was last month’s loss in Saguenay, a rural northeastern district that had led the province in separatist sentiment and was long a Parti Quebecois stronghold. The PQ, as it is commonly known, was trounced in Saguenay by a small, nominally separatist faction that says independence shouldn’t be considered for another decade or more.

“We are at the end of an era--an era dominated by the question of separation and Quebec independence,” declared Pierre Pettigrew, Canada’s staunchly federalist international trade minister, who is a Quebec native and a leader of the Liberal Party here.

For 40 years, Quebec’s resistance to federal rule has been the central issue of both provincial and national politics. But now most Quebecers--including the province’s 75% French-speaking majority--appear to be tiring of the dispute. And the new immigrants upon whom Quebec depends to counteract its plummeting birthrate are adamantly against separation from Canada.

Still, the obituaries for the independence movement may be premature. In 1976, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously declared separatism “dead.”

A year later, the PQ roared into power and engineered the first referendum on independence, which lost by 10 percentage points.

After the Liberals regained control of the provincial government for two terms, the PQ stormed back and again put independence on the ballot.

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“We should never make a judgment on whether separatism is alive or dead, because it is something that surfaces depending on circumstances,” said John Parella, an English-speaking Liberal Party activist here. “The level of separatism rises when Quebecers feel that they have been shortchanged or mistreated.”

But the slights of the past are receding. Quebec’s French-speaking majority has long since asserted its political and cultural dominance--a reality immediately evident in this self-confident, cosmopolitan city.

“Younger people don’t need to fight for the nation anymore, because it already exists in their minds,” McGill University’s Gagnon said.

About 60% of Quebec’s corporate managers are native French speakers, according to business surveys; 40 years ago, it was barely half that. And English speakers and French speakers alike are much more likely to be fluently bilingual today--even as street signs and advertisements have become French alone.

The relocation of some prominent firms from Montreal to Toronto has been more than compensated for by the growth of local export industries, from Bombardier, which makes subway cars, to Hydro-Quebec, a major supplier of New York’s electricity. Quebec, more than any other province, has become a true NAFTA economy, earning as much from sales in the U.S. and Mexico as it does from the rest of Canada. Per capita income is fast approaching that of Ontario, Canada’s highest.

With the North American Free Trade Agreement pulling Quebec into a bigger economic universe, the drive for formal independence “has lost its significance for many people,” said Michelle Rioux, an expert in the local political economy at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

Quebec’s increasing cultural and economic autonomy “removes the sense of emergency” from its separatist quest, acknowledged Jean-Francois Lisee, a University of Montreal professor who was an architect of the 1995 referendum on independence.

An equally important change, Lisee said, is that the province is no longer ethnically polarized: Marriage across linguistic (and religious) lines is now commonplace, and the 10% of the populace that is English-speaking is outnumbered by immigrants who speak neither English nor French as their first language.

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Still, many independence supporters say Quebec has proved that it could be viable as a sovereign nation--something Quebecers themselves once doubted.

“With all this cultural vitality, with all this economic success, why not go all the way?” said Louise Beaudoin, Quebec’s minister for international relations, who oversees a network of quasi-embassies in the Americas and Europe. “When I see Slovenia and Slovakia in the U.N., I think, ‘What about us?’”

Yet even if separatism should crest again, it would take on a new, more pragmatic shape, advocates say. They speak of a continued “partnership” or “association” with Canada that would include open borders, a common currency, joint defense arrangements and foreign policy coordination.

Quebec cannot change its relationship to Canada without Canada’s consent, the Supreme Court ruled in 1998--providing that Ottawa conducts good-faith consultations with Quebec over the terms of any proposed separation. And most Canadians say they do not want Quebec to go.

“I think Canadian identity is too fragile to eliminate that part of it that is not entirely Canadian,” Lisee said. “Without Quebec, Canada is much more American.”

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Changing Attitudes on Independence

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