TORONTO — Canada is being dragged reluctantly into a new confrontation over the future of French-speaking Quebec.
In the last two weeks, political leaders and commentators across Canada have lobbed rhetorical grenades at each other over the revived prospect of Quebec independence.
Two factors have pushed Quebec back to the top of the national political agenda.
First is the pending provincial election there, which by law must take place by fall. Virtually every poll shows the separatist Parti Quebecois leading the governing Liberal Party. PQ leader Jacques Parizeau has promised to begin laying the groundwork for separation immediately upon his election and to hold a province-wide referendum on independence within 10 months of taking office.
Second is the peripatetic Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, the PQ's separatist counterpart in the federal government in Ottawa. Bouchard has become an international evangelist for separatism.
Last week, Bouchard was in Paris, seeking assurance of quick French recognition of an independent Quebec. He didn't get it, at least publicly, but he did get saturation coverage in the Canadian media. Earlier this month, he preached his separatist message in British Columbia and Alberta, the Canadian political equivalent of proselytizing for vegetarianism at a Texas cattlemen's convention.
Most of the resulting argument has focused not on whether Quebec ought to be allowed to secede--most Canadians agree that's for Quebecers to decide--but what the terms of separation ought to be: What would the boundaries of the new country look like? Should the native peoples of Quebec be permitted to opt out of independence and keep their lands in Canada? What kind of economic relationship would Canada have with a sovereign Quebec?
The commentary suggests that this could be a very nasty divorce indeed.
"To hell with common sense, one-sided decency and compromise. You don't win a country that way and you shouldn't lose one either," stormed columnist Peter C. Newman in the national news weekly Maclean's.
In press interviews, British Columbia Premier Michael Harcourt predicted his province would be "the worst of enemies" with an independent Quebec. Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow accused separatist leaders of pulling a "con job" on Quebec voters by suggesting separation would be simple and painless. Ron Irwin, minister of Indian Affairs, declared the federal government would back native organizations that repudiated Quebec independence.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who like his predecessors for 25 of the last 26 years is from Quebec, has sought to avoid the issue, saying he remains confident his fellow Quebecers ultimately will reject separation. That prompted Preston Manning of Alberta, leader of the opposition Reform Party, to accuse the government this week of "sleepwalking toward a . . . constitutional crisis."
Analysts are divided on how the latest arguments might affect the coming Quebec election. Quebec voters have a history of unpredictability.
While the PQ is ahead of the Liberals in current polls, the surveys show uncertainty about full separation. A poll over the weekend showed 52% opposed to independence.
The Bid for Sovereignty
Here are key dates in recent battles over Quebec separation:
* Oct. 12-14, 1968: The Parti Quebecois, dedicated to sovereignty for the French-speaking province, is formed. Rene Levesque is named leader.
* Nov. 15, 1976: PQ wins provincial election after promising a referendum on sovereignty. Levesque becomes premier.
* May 20, 1980: Quebecers defeat Levesque's proposal for sovereignty, 60% to 40%.
* April 17, 1982: Queen Elizabeth II signs a proclamation giving Canada its own constitution, replacing British North America Act of 1867. The move is opposed by Levesque, who says it is unfair to Quebec. (Quebec is the only province to refuse to endorse the new constitution.)
* Oct. 3, 1985: Levesque retires. Pierre-Marc Johnson becomes Quebec premier and PQ leader.
* Dec. 2, 1985: Robert Bourassa, leader of Quebec Liberal Party and a Canadian federalist, defeats Johnson and PQ in provincial elections.
* Nov. 1, 1987: Levesque dies. Johnson resigns as PQ leader nine days later and is succeeded by Jacques Parizeau.
* June 22, 1990: Meech Lake agreement, envisioned by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as a solution to the Quebec conundrum, fails.
* June 15, 1991: Lucien Bouchard and other disaffected members of Parliament from Quebec form the Bloc Quebecois to represent the separatist cause in the Canadian national government.
* Oct. 26, 1992: Charlottetown accord, successor document to Meech Lake, is defeated decisively in a national referendum.
* Oct. 25, 1993: Liberal Party sweeps to victory in national election.
* Jan. 11, 1994: Daniel Johnson, the new Liberal Party leader in Quebec and a Canadian federalist, becomes provincial premier, replacing Bourassa.
Researched by ANDREW VAN VELZEN / Los Angeles Times