Quebec Separatism: Laid to Rest for Now

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Apr 16 18:06:40 UTC 2003

New York Times, April 16, 2003

Quebec Separatism: Laid to Rest for Now


     MONTREAL, April 15 During his failed provincial election campaign,
Premier Bernard Landry predicted that Quebec would become a sovereign
state within 1,000 days after his victory. He never promised to hold a
referendum or explained how Quebec would leave Canada and become
independent. Still, the separatist threat was out there, just as it has
been for the last 40 years of tumultuous elections, marches, family spats
and even a spurt of terrorism in 1970 that led to martial law.

But on Monday, Mr. Landry and his Parti Qubcois were buried in a landslide
by Jean Charest, the Liberal leader who led the antisovereignty forces to
a razor-thin victory in a 1995 referendum. The Liberals won 45.9 percent
of the vote, with the Parti Qubcois gaining 33.2 percent and the
center-right Action Dmocratique du Qubec trailing with 18.2 percent. More
important, after nine years of separatist control, the Liberals will have
solid control of the so-called National Assembly that selects the
provincial government.

"The 1,000 days was perhaps a little short," Mr. Landry said in his
concession speech on Monday night. Now, "we have a few thousand days to
convince our compatriots." The wait will certainly last Mr. Charest's full
term of four to five years, but it could stretch an entire generation or
maybe more. The demographics appear to be moving against the Parti
Qubcois. About 10 percent of the voters in Quebec are now immigrants from
Eastern Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia who feel little sympathy
for the nationalistic strivings rooted in Quebec's French colonial past
and conquest by British forces in the mid-18th century. With the birthrate
plummeting, immigrants are bound to make up a growing segment of the

Meanwhile, the old passionate disputes between English speakers and French
speakers, which for so long divided Montreal, have subsided as people have
become increasingly bilingual and more Francophones marry Anglophones.
Hundreds of thousands of the most recalcitrant English speakers left the
province in the 1970's and 1980's, damaging the economy but leaving behind
a generation of Anglophones more willing to speak French and accept a new
social order. Today, surveys show that as many as 50 percent of the
Anglophones support language laws enacted during the last 30 years to
assure that most immigrants learn French and that French is the most
prominently displayed language on commercial signs.

"People are fed up with the debate, tired of the issue of `are we in or
are we out,' " said Alain Gagnon, director of Quebec studies at McGill
University. Mr. Charest exploited that fatigue by telling voters they
could either choose a government that would aim for sovereignty or one
that would ease the long waiting lines for health care services. Mr.
Charest's improved performance over his failed run in 1998 was partly
based on increasing his total of Francophone voters. But he was also
helped by the emergence of the Action Dmocratique du Qubec, which took
many of the Francophone votes from Mr. Landry.

Led by Mario Dumont, who helped lead the pro-sovereignty forces in 1995,
the center-right party pledged to put off referendums for the foreseeable
future while pushing a conservative agenda of budget-cutting, school
vouchers and partial privatization of health care. Still, many political
scientists caution that the Parti Qubcois lost in landslides in 1985 and
1989, only to return to power in 1994 to pursue another referendum
campaign. "Every time people say sovereignty is dead, it always comes
back," said Guy Lachapelle, a political scientist at Concordia University
in Montreal. Mr. Charest based his campaign on the promise that he would
improve health care by getting more aid from Ottawa, training more doctors
and nurses, and allowing public hospitals to award contracts to private
clinics and laboratories without increasing expenses for patients.

But given that there are long waiting lists for medical procedures across
Canada, and the federal government says it has limited resources for
health care, Mr. Charest may have created expectations that will be hard
to satisfy. The Parti Qubcois will be there to offer other options. But
for now, at least, the new Quebec government will be solidly federalist.
"Quebec's leadership will make Canada a stronger place," Mr. Charest said
in his victory speech. "It's not only Quebec that starts to change
tonight, it's also Canada."

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