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Maneuvering Over Quebec Dominates Canada Meeting

August 26, 1995|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. JOHN'S, Canada — When the premiers of Canada's 12 provinces and territories gathered in this Newfoundland port city for their annual meeting this week, the issue of Quebec's possible separation from the country was not even on the agenda.

But with a provincial referendum on Quebec independence looming on the autumn calendar, the premiers found themselves drawn irresistibly into the incipient campaign.

The meeting, similar to the National Governors' Assn. in the United States, ended Friday after bitter wrangling between the leaders of Canada's English-speaking provinces--who favor continued Canadian unity--and Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, leader of the separatists.

Each side is maneuvering for early advantage with Quebec voters, who according to a poll released Friday are nearly evenly divided on the probable referendum question. In the next 10 days, Parizeau is expected to announce an election date, probably between Oct. 30 and mid-November.

The separatists' cause has risen in the polls since they announced a major change in strategy last spring. Faced with near-certain loss if they asked Quebec voters to endorse an unconditional declaration of independence, Parizeau and his separatist allies now are coupling Quebec independence with an offer to negotiate an economic and political partnership with what would be left of Canada.

If Canada rejected such an offer, however, Quebec still would go its own way, according to Parizeau.

The poll published Friday by the Toronto Globe and Mail and Le Journal de Montreal showed 44.4% of Quebeckers surveyed favoring such a proposal, 45.3% opposing and 10.3% undecided or declining to say. When Quebeckers were asked to endorse unvarnished independence, they rejected it by almost 60%.

Parizeau also is telling voters that an independent Quebec would continue to use Canadian currency, that Quebeckers could keep Canadian passports and even that Quebec dairy farmers, a small but politically important group, could continue to benefit from Canadian trade policies.

The tactic is designed to counter economic analyses that suggest independence for the French-speaking province would mean a reduced standard of living, a run on the Canadian dollar, higher interest rates and a flight of investors.

But while the separatists' shift has helped them in the polls, it also has left them open to charges that they are holding up false hopes by suggesting that Quebeckers can have their political independence and the economic security of continued association with Canada.

"For Quebeckers to assume we would go ahead and break up the country and then do business as usual is an illusion," Frank McKenna, the premier of New Brunswick, told reporters here as the conference opened Wednesday. "You simply can't go through a divorce and retain all of the benefits of marriage."

McKenna was one of several premiers who tore into Parizeau personally, accusing him of "trickery." Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow called Parizeau "the master illusionist" trying to fool Quebeckers into making a "huge leap of faith into an abyss of darkness."

The conference went downhill from there. Several premiers accused Parizeau of misrepresenting what happened in a closed meeting. Parizeau, who stayed around for less than 24 hours of the 2 1/2-day conference, complained in turn that the others changed an agreed-upon statement after he had left to return to the Quebec campaign.

Parizeau and the other leaders of the separatist camp, Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont, have been campaigning for two weeks. Meanwhile, Canadian federalists, led by Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Daniel Johnson, head of the Liberal Party in Quebec, are just beginning to crank up their effort.

Turner is on assignment in St. John's.

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