Log Cabin Chronicles

A sigh of relief

JOHN MAHONEY

STANSTEAD, QUEBEC | Despite Monday's overwhelming victory of the separatist Parti Québécois, pro-federalist residents along the border here heaved a collective sigh of relief because voters denied the PQ a mandate to call an outright separation referendum in the near future.

The PQ will again control the 125-seat National Assembly with its 75 seats, despite receiving a minority 42.7 percent of the popular vote. This is because MNAs (Members of the National Assembly) are elected on a winner-take-all basis, riding by riding.

"I'm glad Jean Charest [the Liberal Party leader] got elected and received a plurality of votes," said Faye Dustin, Secretary-Treasurer of the rural Municipality of Ogden, which is on the shore of Lake Memphremagog. ":That ought to put a monkey wrench into any of their plans to call a snap referendum [on separation]."

Although the Liberals gained 43.7 percent - one percent more than the Pequistes - they only managed to win 48 seats. Liberal Party strength is centered in Montreal and along the Vermont border in the Eastern Townships.

Premier Lucien Bouchard, who has the same intense affinity with French Quebeckers that the late, revered Rene Levesque did, campaigned on the strategy that he wouldn't ask voters to go through another grueling separation referendum until the necessary "winning conditions" were in place.

Bouchard declined to spell out his conditions, but some political observers believe that he wanted at least 46 percent of the voters behind him before he felt safe to call a referendum. And he didn't the get the numbers on Monday.

"It's impossible for Bouchard to pull a fast one with a referendum vote now," said Malcolm Stone, a retired resident of Stanstead East. "But, the threat of separation is never going to be over."

Stone, a former Montrealer, added that he has never been all that concerned about separation and its effect on the economy. "This is a pleasant place to live," he said, "and if Coca Cola thinks there's profit to be made, they'll still do business with you."

Kim Prangley of Tomifobia and Laurie Asbil of Stanstead were not as detached as Stone.

"I couldn't listen to it or watch the election results," said Ms. Prangley, who is Librarian at the Haskell Free Library. "It's like watching an amputation - and I don't do that. I didn't want to be up all night with upset stomach."

"They're never going to give up trying," said Ms. Asbil, an administrative assistant. "They'll just try again. I'm glad they didn't win a landslide victory. Now, we just have to wait..."

Some 78 percent of Quebec's approximately five million eligible voters braved nasty weather in much of the sprawling province to cast their ballots. Mario Dumont of Riviere du Loup was the only member of the Action Democratique Party to be elected. Despite winning nearly 12 percent of the popular vote, the party got but one seat. One seat remains vacant because of a recent death, and will be contested in a by-election December 14.

The political reality is that Quebecers cast their vote for what they perceive is a record of good provincial government, not to give Bouchard a mandate to push for separation from Canada.

While the core concept of the PQ is to separate from Canada and create a new country, Bouchard has told voters he also wants to work with the other provinces and territories to renew the Canadian "social union."

Pierre Renfret, a painter from Stanstead and a long-time sovereigntist from the "golden days" of Rene Levesque, thinks that Bouchard's "social union" scheme might work "if Ottawa cooperates." Renfret also believes that there will be no problem with investment capital flowing into Quebec, despite the political uncertainty that continues.

"Maybe there will be problems with Canadian money," he said, "but not with international investment money." The threat of loss of investment money from outside Quebec is, he added, "just a federalist scare tactic."

Part of what Bouchard is talking about is the idea that the provinces - especially Quebec - could opt out of federally-funded programs with full compensation. That is, they could say "no thanks" and get whatever money would have been allocated as their share as members in the "social union."

During the campaign former Premier Jacques Parizeau, who once said he had a secret plan to take Quebec immediately out of confederation had they won the 1995 referendum, crowed that Bouchard had a great idea and should milk the federal government for all he could get for Quebec.

David Vachon, a writer who lives outside of Tomifobia, doesn't buy into the relief mode that a lot of the Eastern Townships' Anglos seem to be in:

"It's a stressful event...it just goes on and on, the neverendum...I feel frustrated and disenfranchised. We keep crossing our fingers and keep hoping that things will somehow work out."

Vachon added that he is "encouraged" that a little more than half the province seems to want "a regular relationship" with the rest of Canada and North America.

"Quebec," he said, "will never be finally integrated into the North American community until they stop looking inward and develop a sense of trust."

Parti Québécois supporters are essentially white, French-speaking descendents of "old stock" Quebecers. Indeed, when the PQ narrowly lost the 1995 separation referendum by a fraction of one percent, an embittered Premier Parizeau, in a scotch-enhanced denouncement, angrily blamed the loss on "the Anglos," the éethnics," and émoney" - a barely-veiled reference to Jewish business interests. Some within the party were highly critical of his performance but all has been forgiven.

If Bouchard is rebuffed by Ottawa in his "social union" scheme - indeed, some political observers believe this is his strategy - he will be able to claim that Canada is once again abusing Quebec and the only answer is a vote to separate. This may well be another of his "winning conditions."

"There's no big change in sight just now," summed up Stanstead businessman David Lepitre. "We should be thankful for that. We should be able to hold out for a while longer. But we still have the threat of separation hanging over our heads..."

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