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Vote Points Up Canada's Disunity : Quebec results symbolize the nation's challenge

November 01, 1995

Canada remains a united country in the aftermath of Quebec's referendum on secession, but how far that unity extends beyond the inescapable conditions of geography is arguable. The referendum, which saw separatism for Quebec rejected by little more than 50,000 votes out of more than 4.5 million cast, starkly illuminates the profound cultural and political differences between the French-speaking majority of Canada's largest province and the rest of the sprawling country. Fifteen years ago only 40% of Quebeckers were ready to choose national independence. Now nearly half are.

PLEA AND REBUFF: As Monday's vote count neared an end, Prime Minister Jean Chretien made a plea for national reconciliation. The response from Quebec's Premier Jacques Parizeau seemed anything but conciliatory. In a defiant speech to disappointed separatists he blamed the loss of the referendum by only 1.1 percentage points on "the ethnic vote"--about 18% of Quebec's 7.3 million people do not speak French as their first language--and warned ambiguously of future "revenge." On Tuesday the premier apologized for those remarks and announced he will soon step down. But his Monday night comments made clear that Canadians have a lot of sorting out to do if they are going to build a new national consensus.

Quebec alone among the 10 provinces has not accepted Canada's 1982 constitution, which diluted Quebec's power by giving equal status in the federal government to all the provinces. With one-fourth of Canada's population, Quebec believes it deserves more than a one-tenth say in national affairs. Most of all, it fears that without greater influence in Ottawa its 400-year-old cultural heritage is at risk.

Chretien, a Quebecker himself but never known as a Quebec nationalist, said in the course of his campaign against separation that he was ready to support constitutional changes that would give the Francophone province official recognition as a "distinct society," with special protections for its language and culture and a veto over future constitutional amendments. But special status for Quebec has been proposed twice before, in 1987 and 1992, and rejected, the first time by the provinces, the second by a national vote. Whether the shock of this week's sizable vote for a divorce will change things remains to be seen.

A POLITICAL GAME: The premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan said in the wake of the vote that they are ready to work for change. But Mike Harris, premier of Ontario, Quebec's western neighbor and Canada's most populous province, declared it would be "very, very premature" to begin discussing specific constitutional changes. Politics anywhere is about who gets what, and it's clear now as in the past that some of the provinces are determined that any political gains made by Quebec do not come at their expense. All of which is to suggest that the United States' close ally, good friend and biggest trading partner may still be a long way from resolving its internal differences and achieving real national unity.

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