If at First You Don't Secede...

POLITICS

HE STOOD ALONE on the stage in Montreal's smoke-filled Paul Sauve Arena, cigarette absent, trying to start his speech to no avail. "Mes chers amis," he said several times in an attempt to quiet the crowd's thunder. After a quarter of an hour, Rene Levesque, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois and premier of Quebec, finally launched into his concession of defeat in Tuesday's province-wide referendum. "Until next time," he told his supporters, eliciting another raucous round of applause.

"Until next time"--the phrase conjured a specter of success, a shadow of eventual secession to observers across Canada. In Levesque's deeply-set eyes Tuesday night, you could detect both shattering disappointment and tenacious optimism. The self-styled Lenin of the Quebec "revolution" viewed the setback as severe, but stressed that the verdict is still out. "The ball is in the federalists' court," he said in French, words received by his supporters with a chorus of catcalls. The loss in the plebiscite was a watershed; but it did not, to quote Churchill, mark the beginning of the end--it signalled the end of the beginning.

Quebec is not Canada's West Bank, nor is it Canada's Biafra, as some American analysts have suggested. And the U.S. would not prove an effective mediator were the tension between the independentistes and the federalists to heighten, as one U.S. daily editorialized. The 83-per-cent turnout in last week's referendum provides ample proof that Quebeckers care about their province's destiny. Whether that fate lies in what Levesque terms Quebec's "rendezvous with history" or whether the path followed will be Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's "renewed federalism" remains foggy.

One unequivocal fact, however, emerged from the returns: the etapiste--or "step by step"--strategy for separation, fashioned by prominent cabinet member Claude Moran and adopted by Levesque despite objections from the more radical elements of the Parti Quebecois, has floundered. In the wake of the loss. various cadres of PQ intellectuals will convene to chart a new course for the party before the next provincial elections. Levesque, whose book An Option for Quebec enshrined separatism as a legitimate aspiration, will have to square off in tiffs with impatient party members.

THE 107-WORD REFERENDUM question was far from extreme. It outlined the PQ program of "sovereignty-association"--which the plebiscite described as "a new agreement with the rest of Canada based on the equality of nation." According to the PQ's platform, sovereignty-association would enable Quebec to acquire axclusive jurisdiction over law, taxation, and foreign relations while at the same time maintaining an economic association with Canada, including a common currency. The question also stated that no change in Quebec's political status would occur without approval through another referendum. The vote last week, then, simply requested a mandate to negotiate the PQ's proposed agreement with Canada.

Although the delicately-phrased question had a "soft" character, federalists and separatists alike considered the vote to have immense symbolic significance, which may have spurred the alarmist sentiments popping up out of context in the U.S. media. The referendum had no air of finality; if it had, Levesque's step-by-step plan would be vitiated. However, it proved in the interests of the No forces marshalled by Trudeau and Claude Ryan, head of the Quebec Liberal Party and provincial opposition leader, to inflate the importance of the vote and appeal to patriotism.

Trudeau delivered the most impassioned speeches of his lengthy career in an effort to undermine the PQ's initiative. He said he would under no circumstances--Yes victory or otherwise--negotiate sovereignty-association. Himself a bilingual Montrealer and the only politician in Quebec with greater than Levesque, Trudeau pledged to reconstruct Canada's archaic, watery constitution. For his part, Levesque appealed to solidarity, and fostered engroupements, community-level organizations designed unity. The touchy and emotional issue split families right down the middle. As one middle-aged No voter said, "I don't discuss the situation over dinner with my children anymore. We all get too aggravated."

The sad irony after the referendum is that the citizens of Quebec may have undercut their bargaining power by voting No. Both sides have said they are dissatisfied with the status quo; a No vote still carried the stipulation that Quebec's position within confederation be modified. But when Trudeau convenes a conference with the ten provincial premiers, he will face enormous difficulties in reaching a consensus. The stances of the various premiers are dictated by regional demands, and Trudeau will have to confront a host of competing interests. Amid a swirl of centrifugal forces, Quebec's referendum vote may will lessen its leverage; Levesque, the loser, will represent Quebec as long as he manages to cling to power. And he is under no obligation to call an election until late 1981. The winner of the plebiscite, Ryan, will wallow at home, powerless to forward his programs, for he remains merely leader of the opposition.

So Trudeau must skillfully avert a very real tragedy; if, as Levesque explained to his adherents in his remarks the night of the defeat, the returns indicate a "willingness to give federalism another chance," then that opportunity must not be squandered. Trudeau cannot allow the focus of constitutional discussion to center on the oil-rich West--more specifically, on the booming province of Alberta, which has not shown any inkling of wanting to share its wealth with poverty-stricken regions such as the Maritimes. Many Albertans hoped for a Levesque victory last week, feeling it would facilitate their claims for greater provincial autonomy.

Perhaps even more frightening for Canadian federalists is Trudeau's probable departure from politics within a few years. Despite the resentment felt by many segments of the population, most Canadians realize Trudeau is the only figure capable of forging some sort of federalism agreeable to all parties. And Levesque captured a solid majority of the younger vote and the university students, despite dropping 96 of Quebec's 110 seats. The image of Levesque being showered with applause in a small, sweaty arena on the night of his most significant failure may yet return to haunt Canadian federalists.