Quebec tensions rise as separatists headed for election win

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 1:51pm


Less than two decades ago, in perhaps the most traumatic moment in modern Canadian history, the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec came within a hair’s breadth of voting for independence.

And while another vote may still be years away separatist sentiment is back on the agenda as an opposition party, dedicated to carving Canada into two, heads for victory in the September 4 provincial election.

The Parti Quebecois (PQ) complains that Quebec does not make enough from rich reserves of iron, zinc, nickel, copper and gold and wants to force mining firms to pay higher royalties. It also plans to make it harder for foreign firms to take over Quebec companies.

It will strengthen already tough language laws to ensure French dominates, and promises a third referendum on splitting off from Canada when the time is right.

“Time is playing against Canada in the sense that slowly but surely the attachment Quebecers have for Canada is withering,” said PQ legislator Stephane Bergeron, 47, tipped as a likely minister in a future PQ government.

“I think reality is going to catch up with Canada,” he told reporters as he campaigned in his constituency of Vercheres, a separatist stronghold along the St Lawrence River east of Montreal.

Quebec – where 80 per cent of the 7.8 million population are native French-speakers – has always sat rather uneasily inside a largely anglophone Canada of 34.5 million, celebrating its own provincial holiday with far more fervor than the July 1 Canada Day.

To quit Canada, separatists would have to win a new referendum. The pro-independence side lost heavily in 1980, but the 1995 referendum was much tighter, and separatists won 49.4 per cent of the vote.

PQ leader Pauline Marois says she would hold a referendum “tomorrow” if she felt sure of victory, but it looks unlikely now, given polls that put support for independence at only 40 per cent.

For the time being she promises to focus on the economy, healthcare and education, assuming she wrests power from the ruling Liberals, as most pollsters expect.