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Quebeckers Urge Commissioners To Press for Independence

QUEBEC'S commission on its own future ended hearings last week, and now Canada awaits the verdict. More than anything else, these hearings have shown how close Quebec has come to separating from Canada.

``Many still refuse to see that Canada could eventually end up looking geographically like the way Pakistan did before Bangladesh become independent: a country cut off from one of its vital parts,'' observes Lysiane Gagnon, a leading Quebec journalist.

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The federal government has its own commission and other provinces have since launched others. Quebec's commission was set up by Robert Bourassa, the province's premier, following the failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord last June. That agreement would have given the province of Quebec rights as a ``distinct society'' within Canada, but it was rejected by the provinces of Newfoundland and Manitoba. Since then, Quebec seems to have rejected its ties with Canada.

Over the past seven weeks, the 35-member Commission, chaired by banker Michel Belanger and businessman Jean Campeau, has heard 250 submissions. They have been overwhelmingly in favor of an independent Quebec.

The commission will hear next month from so-called expert witnesses; the debate will not be so much over whether Quebec should separate, but how.

In the spring, the commission's final job will be to boil down its findings into a hard recommendation. A lot of people, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, are pretty sure what that will be: a clear call for a stronger Quebec and a weaker Canada, if not outright political independence for Quebec.

``The mood is obviously not good across Canada,'' Mr. Mulroney told a pre-Christmas news conference in Ottawa. He admitted the Quebec commission and the failure of his Meech Lake constitutional reforms meant the rest of Canada had to rethink its relationship with French-speaking Quebec. ``The alternative to fundamental reform in Canada is no Canada.''

Members of the Belanger-Campeau commission on the future of Quebec have been more direct. Lucien Bouchard, until last spring a federal Cabinet minister and now head of the separatist Bloc Qu'eb'ecois in the federal Parliament, wants a referendum to decide on independence, which he favors.

Recent opinion polls show that two-thirds of Quebecers want some form of sovereignty-association with the rest of Canada; just over half want outright independence. The surge in support for independence has come since the rejection of the Meech Lake accord. There may yet be another referendum on Canada's future.

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Calls for independence

Jean Beland, president of the Mouvement Desjardin, the largest financial institution in Quebec, told the commission the province should declare independence now and worry about the details later.

And Louis Laberge, head of the Quebec Federation of Labor, and a member of the commission showed the emotional intensity of those dedicated to independence, when warned of the financial consequences of a separate Quebec.

``Whether there are enough jobs or not, I don't care,'' said Mr. Laberge. ``That's one of the costs we'll have to pay, and we'll pay.''

The only strong federalist voice heard before the commission was that of Jean Chretien, who was elected leader of the federal Liberal Party last summer. He received a cool reception when he appeared at the hearing last week. Mr. Chretien, a Cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wants a stronger Canada, not an independent Quebec.

``Of course there would be a big party [after independence],'' said Chretien. ``But there would be a big headache after that.''

He said the splitting of Canada could be the enlargement of the United States. ``Some provinces, seeing the Canadian dream broken, might want to join the United States.''

Referendum rejected

Mulroney admitted Dec. 21 that the separatist forces in Quebec had won the day, or at least the propaganda war in the Belanger-Campeau Commission. For that reason, he rejected the idea of a referendum on whether Quebec should leave Canada.

``The sovereignists would dearly love a referendum,'' said Mulroney. ``The faster, the better. They want to strike while the iron appears to be hot. It's not going to work that way.''

The debate on Quebec separatism has dominated politics for 30 years. Other parts of the country are growing tired of it; there is growing support in western Canada for the Reform Party, which welcomes a more distinct English and French Canada.

And there is weariness in other parts of English Canada; the debate is even wearing down such liberal voices as Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist with the Toronto Globe and Mail. A bilingual journalist, who supported the Meech Lake accord, he summed up the Belanger Campeau Commission: ``Quebec is a profoundly self-absorbed society engaged in another existential examination.''

That examination may lead to independence; it may also lead to several more years of negotiating the future of Canada.

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