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Narrow Federalist Victory Leaves Unsolved Problems for Canada

October 31, 1995

MONTREAL (AP) _ Technically, Canada won and Quebec’s separatists lost. But in fundamental ways, the bitter referendum on secession resolved nothing.

To be sure, the Canadian dollar was spared from a battering and the nation was spared the embarrassment of having a prime minister whose home province had voted to secede.

But the winning federalists could scarcely take comfort from their razor-thin victory Monday. And the separatists, anything but chastened, declared they were itching to start all over again.

People at the separatist headquarters, where the final result of the secession referendum was announced, wiped away tears and began to chant ``We want a country″ as their leaders talked tough.

``We will wait a bit, but not for long,″ Quebec’s separatist premier, Jacques Parizeau, said in what was far from a concession speech. ``We won’t wait 15 years this time.″

He was referring to the 15-year lapse since the last referendum in 1980, when separatists were crushed by a 60-40 margin. After that defeat, separatist leader Rene Levesque ended his concession speech with a defiant ``Until next time.″

Next time came Monday, and the separatists almost prevailed, losing by barely 1 percent.

Even young federalists at the victory celebrations in Montreal said Prime Minister Jean Chretien must now be more open to constitutional reform that would meet some of the aspirations of Quebec’s French nationalists.

``I think people have said they want to stay in Canada, but they want a new constitution,″ said Isabelle St-Laurent. ``We want more than Canada has offered to us. Jean Chretien has no choice at this point.″

Randy Ferguson, a hotel employee, agreed.

``I think even people on the No side are ready for a bit of change. There has to be. We are at a dead end.″

The failure to win a more decisive victory could well distract Chretien from pursuing other social and political goals. The final two years of his mandate could be consumed by the constitutional fallout of the Quebec vote.

``It’s a victory for nobody,″ said Marc Lalonde, who was a Cabinet minister under former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Had the defeat been more decisive, Parizeau might have felt compelled to resign. Instead, he suggested he will turn swiftly to a new secession strategy.

His government is struggling with a huge deficit _ more than $2 billion U.S. _ and he already has tried to blame the federal government for the predicament. Tensions are likely to worsen if Ottawa, as expected, is forced to make cuts in social spending to trim its own federal deficit.

Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, said a narrow federalist victory ``would consign Canada and Quebec to continuing acrimony and paralysis.″

Federalist leaders, after clinching victory Monday night, called for reconciliation and a joint effort to seek changes. But it is an open question whether the separatists will reciprocate, especially after some federalists described Parizeau’s defiant speech as demagoguery.

``Mr. Parizeau’s comments were unacceptable,″ said Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin.

Chretien, ironically, is more popular in English-speaking Canada than in his home province.

He could probably summon premiers of the nine English-speaking provinces to a conference that would adopt constitutional change and discuss transferring more powers to the provinces. But Parizeau might boycott such talks.


EDITOR’S NOTE _ David Crary, based in Toronto, is the AP Chief of Bureau for Canada.

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