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Economy, Language Drive Quebec Election

THE Quebec election campaign is either about the economy and the environment or it's about language. It all depends on what language you speak. ``The central issue will be that a stronger economy is the best road for Quebec to peace, prosperity, and justice,'' said Liberal Premier Robert Bourassa, in announcing the election in the predominately French-speaking province.

The French-language daily, La Presse, said the Sept. 25 election would center on the economy and environment. But the English-language daily, The Gazette, focused on the language issue - especially Bill 178, which bans English from outside signs in the province. In a front-page story, it featured an English-rights activist, Graeme Decarie, suggesting English-speaking voters spoil their ballots.

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``Like idiots they'll vote liberal,'' said Mr. Decarie. ``It's disappointing. I wish they would show more gumption.''

Quebec's English-speaking minority has traditionally supported the Liberal Party. The only time it did not was in 1976, and that shifted power so the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois was able to come to power. Polls show 60 percent of English-speaking voters will vote for the Liberals in this election.

Many English-speaking Quebeckers were disappointed when Premier Bourassa reneged on his 1985 campaign promise to allow signs in both French and English in Quebec. English signs had been banned in 1977 by the separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois (PQ) government.

Two fringe parties, Equality and Unity, are campaigning for the English-speaking vote. ``We're aiming at the protest vote, anything but Bourassa,'' said Richard Holden, a lawyer who may run in the Montreal district of Westmount.

``The English will vote for the Liberals in the end,'' said Nick Auf der Maur, a Montreal politician. ``It's a blind vote, and they remember what happened in 1976 when the PQ won.''

The separatist Parti Qu'eb'ecois leader, Jacques Parizeau, also made an appeal for the English vote. He wants to debate the premier in English; the two men have already agreed to a debate in French. The PQ leader speaks flawless English.

The economy will be the focus of the campaign aimed at the 85 percent of Quebeckers who are French-speaking. For these voters, the language issue has been settled; the key issue is economic growth and jobs. Bourassa opened a high-tech industrial park just before the election and plans energy mega-projects in northern Quebec.

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In the past four years, Quebec has enjoyed an economic boom, although its economy is not as robust as that of neighboring Ontario. Quebec's unemployment rate is 9 percent, double that in Ontario.

The environment has also become an issue here. The town of St. Basile le Grand had to be evacuated last August after a fire in a warehouse where PCBs were stored. A subsequent investigation showed that environmental laws were inadequate or barely enforced.

The polls show Bourassa and the Liberals heading for an easy victory over the Parti Qu'eb'ecois. But that was the situation 13 years ago when the PQ surprised everyone and defeated Bourassa, who was premier at the time.

This time, however, Bourassa has diffused the issue of language with French-speaking voters and has stolen the opposition's thunder.

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