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Why One Canadian Province Quarrels With the Rest


For many English-speaking Canadians, Quebec has been a source of annoyance and conflict as it sought to protect its French language and culture. Now, after decades of rapid modernization in Quebec, English Canadians have begun to appreciate the diversity Quebec offers. But disputes have not ended, as seen by the current struggle to ratify the Meech Lake accord that would give Quebec the conditions it seeks before signing the Canadian constitution.

These pages examine the situation in Quebec today.

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NEWFOUNDLAND Premier Clyde Wells had some advice for Quebeckers at the close of a grueling seven days of negotiations on Canadian constitutional disputes earlier this month:

``It is the responsibility of all the citizens of Quebec to place Canada first and recognize that, like all of the other provinces, Quebec is second.''

But that is not the way most French-speaking Quebeckers see it. They put Quebec first, Canada second.

That difference is part of the story behind Canada's periodic clashes between Quebec and the nine other provinces with their Anglophone majority. One such round concluded - in a fashion - June 9 when Canada's 10 provincial premiers and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney agreed on a deal to ratify a 1987 amendment to the Canadian constitution that had been approved almost three years earlier in a similar conclave. Legislatures of two provinces, Manitoba and Newfoundland, must decide by Saturday midnight whether to ratify.

When that 1987 Meech Lake accord was announced late one night, some of the Quebec media shed a few tears of relief and joy. They probably were Quebec ``nationalists.'' But they did not want a bust-up with the nine other provinces and two northern territories.

``Quebec first'' doesn't mean that the majority of Quebec's 5.3 million Francophones have no affection for Canada. Rather, Quebeckers give prime importance to their language, their culture, their ``distinct society,'' as it is defined in the 1987 amendment.

``For us,'' says Louis Balthazar, a self-described ``moderate Quebec nationalist'' and a professor of political science at Universit'e Laval here, ``the center, the homeland, our emotional attraction, is Quebec. In the heart of most Quebeckers is a desire for sovereignty.''

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Yet Professor Balthazar would not want full separation for Quebec from the rest of Canada. He's aware of the practical problems associated with creation of a new country. ``Symbolically sovereign - perhaps that would be enough,'' he says.

LAST year Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa established a constitutional commission of his Liberal Party to examine future political options for Quebec. When it became uncertain last winter whether newly elected governments in New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Manitoba would ratify the Meech Lake accord, despite the signatures of their previous premiers to the deal, he asked the commission to consider what Quebec should do if the accord failed. That action was aimed at buying Mr. Bourassa time should the failure create a political storm in the province.

Now the commission will continue its hearings and research on its original goal of looking at a ``second phase'' of constitutional reforms, reporting to the party council next February. It will study reform of Canada's appointed Senate. It will especially examine the division of responsibilities between Quebec and the federal government in communications, culture, and immigration.

For example: Should Quebec take over the French programming of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation? The CBC is a crown corporation (state-owned entity) set up decades ago with the specific goal of encouraging greater unity for this nation of 26 million spread across thousands of miles from sea to sea.

In other words, the trend toward greater Quebec separatism is not dead. But it could be dormant for two or three years. As one French-Canadian political journalist here put it, ``Quebeckers want a truce.'' They, like Anglophone Canadians in other provinces, are tired of the nearly constant hassles over constitutional reform that have taken so much attention over the past few years, says Gilles Lesage of Le Devoir, an influential Montreal newspaper. Quebeckers, he says, would rather concentrate on provincial economics (despite years of economic expansion, Quebec still has 10 percent unemployment).

QUEBEC Premier Bourassa, with three years to go before facing another provincial election, is considered politically secure. Since he achieved a promise of ratification of the Meech Lake accord without any changes at the meeting of the ``First Ministers'' earlier this month, his ratings in public opinion polls are expected to rise. During the heat of the recent constitutional debate, the Liberal Party slipped marginally behind the Parti Quebecois, which advocates ``sovereignty association'' (even greater separation) for Quebec.

In 1980, 40 percent of Quebeckers voted for sovereignty association. But polls this spring showed more than 60 percent favor it.

Aside from the feeling of rejection as a result of the fuss in English Canada over Meech Lake, two factors shifted public sentiment here toward sovereignty association, according to Paul-Andr'e Comeau, editor in chief of Le Devoir.

One was a statement on television by a legendary figure in Quebec society, George-Henri Levesque. He said that, were the 1980 referendum to be held today, he would not vote for federalism. Though the senior Dominican priest said he didn't know what he would do, his words startled Quebeckers. Father Levesque is widely regarded as the father of Quebec's ``quiet revolution'' that modernized and secularized the province. While head of the faculty of social sciences at Universit'e Laval, he educated and led the opposition to the corrupt postwar government of Premier Maurice Duplessis.

The second element was the shift in views of Francophone business leaders in the province. In 1980, they worried about the impact of separatism on Quebec's economy. Today they are much more confident of their ability to weather any temporary disruption resulting from a move toward greater independence from Canada.

That's why many Canadians, English and French, say Quebec will inevitably seek looser political ties with Canada, while retaining strong economic links. ``A real confederation instead of a federation,'' says Professor Balthazar.

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