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QUEBEC INDEPENDENCE: THE VISION HAD FADED

By DOUGLAS MARTIN (NYT) 1303 words
Published: January 26, 1984

MONTREAL -

With more than a quarter of the youth in Quebec Province unemployed and the winter winds particularly stinging this year, the grand political dreams of Quebec's recent past seem increasingly anachronistic.

''Independence is an obsolete concept, an idea of the 50's,'' Robert Bourassa, leader of the province's opposition Liberal Party, said in a recent interview.

In a separate interview, Premier Rene Levesque, whose Parti Quebecois has promoted the idea of a Quebec at least partly independent from the rest of Canada since assuming power in 1976, insisted that personally he is ''just as dedicated to the basic question'' of separatism. But he acknowledged that his party must adapt to changed circumstances, and predicted a heated debate over how to address the issue when the Parti Quebecois holds its annual convention in June.

''I'm going to listen,'' he said. Liberals Lead in Poll

Signs that Mr. Levesque's vision is in grave trouble extend beyond his expressed flexibility. In a recent poll conducted among 2,009 people in Quebec by Crop Inc. of Montreal Mr. Bourassa's Liberals led the Parti Quebecois 66 to 24 percent; with two victories in December, the Liberals have beaten the Parti Quebecois in 18 consecutive by-elections, and a Gallup Poll last September showed only 9 percent of Quebecers felt separatist sentiment was ''very strong'' compared with 23 percent in 1976.

Making matters worse for the Parti Quebecois have been a series of scandals and what are perceived as missteps over the past year. One former top minister is in jail for sex offenses; another was convicted for trying to steal a coat from a department store, and still another gave a government contract to his brother's company without asking for tenders. Furthermore, the government has received mountains of publicity for a $27,000 job- development grant to a saloon in suburban Montreal featuring striptease dancers.

The Parti Quebecois has also retreated from its broad social agenda, a retrenchment reflected by such actions as a much tougher stance on public sector expenditures, the highest in Canada, and an easing of laws guaranteeing the paramountcy of the French language.

''No bloody legislation is there forever in its pristine beauty,'' Mr. Levesque said. Jobs Are a Priority

Still, political analysts say separatist sentiment never entirely disappears in Quebec, whose six million people, 82 percent French-speaking, are surrounded by more than 18 million English-speaking Canadians.

''Separatism has been buried several times in my lifetime, and will be again,'' Richard D. French, a Liberal member of Quebec's National Assembly, said. ''But it won't be, if you know what I mean.''

Mr. Bourassa's return to the Liberal leadership, however, represents a turn to more pragmatic concerns. He served as Quebec's Premier in the six years before Mr. Levesque's assumption of power in November 1976. Although his term was marred by still unproven charges of scandal, he is best remembered for creating employment through huge government projects, particularly the giant James Bay hydroelectric project in Northern Quebec.

''When people think of Bourassa, they think of jobs,'' he said. ''Bourassa - jobs.''

The Liberal leader's economic priority is easing unemployment among people between 18 and 24 years of age, which in some regions of the province exceeds 50 percent and averages nearly 30 percent. Pointing out that James Bay alone provided more than 135,000 jobs over the last decade, he is pushing the idea of expanding the project if energy markets can be enlarged in the northeastern United States.

Mr. Bourassa believes jobs and economic growth will be the main issues in Quebec at least until the end of this decade. ''It's less flashy, but first things first,'' he said. Wages Are Rolled Back

Mr. Levesque is repeatedly stressing the same concerns, and cites the reduction of Quebec's soaring taxes as a key goal. To this end, he rolled back public sector wages last year, provoking a bitter strike among some of his party's key supporters.

''If you don't make your common cake as big and as rich as possible, there's nothing to distribute,'' he said. ''The recession has made that clear as never before.''

There have also been substantial easing of Quebec's language law, a major factor in driving 130 major corporations out of the province over the past decade. Critics had ridiculed some of the enforcement actions taken by so- called tongue troopers under the law, including the taping over the English word ''street'' on signs; the seizure of 10,000 ''Dunkin' Donuts'' bags in 1977, and the prosecution of an English hospital last year for not providing a patient the opportunity ''to die in French.''

Last year, the Parti Quebecois government made specific changes in the law to expand the availability of education in English, ease French language requirements in the testing of professionals and allow English-speaking institutions to communicate without attaching French translations. Changes Made in Bill

More important, changes have been made in the preamble to Bill 101, the 1977 French-language legislation underlining the special status of English and English insitutions. ''We've gone through the most difficult time,'' Eric Maldoff, president of the Alliance Quebec, a 40,000-member English rights group said. ''A spirit of optimism has begun to emerge.''

Underlying this spirit is an expected ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada in February outlawing other features of Bill 101 that the English consider discriminatory. The Quebec goverment has already lost in trial and appeals courts in the province.

''The language debate, as we knew it, will never come back again,'' Mr. Bourassa said.

This new situation, with a more relaxed posture by the Quebec government toward English, is a direct result of the realization of former Premier Daniel Johnson's dream of making Quebec as French as Ontario is English. ''He probably never imagined such a goal would be practically achieved in a matter of 15 years,'' Jacques Parizeau, Quebec Finance Minister, said recently in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada in Toronto. Big Defeat Is Predicted

Still, Mr. Levesque has not completely renounced what one Montreal journalist calls ''folkloric nationalism.'' He still maintains that any companies that took jobs out of the province are not the sort of corporate citizens Quebec wants anyway. ''I couldn't care less,'' he declared.

Such thinking is why Mr. Bourassa thinks the Parti Quebecois will suffer ''the biggest defeat in Quebec's history'' when an election is held, probably in about 14 months.

His plan is nonetheless to be extremely cautious in addressing what his strategists deem the continuing strengths of the current Parti Quebecois leadership: an ability to benefit from a cyclically improving economy; skill in using polls, television and the other tools of modern politics; a proven capacity to tug at the heart strings of Quebecers, and perhaps even a number of attractive alternatives to Mr. Levesque's leadership.

Specifically, the Liberals are not forgetting that almost no one gave the Parti Quebecois much chance after they lost a 1980 referendum asking for authority to negotiate a special status for the province. But the party came back to win in 1981.

''I will not give them any chances,'' Mr. Bourassa said. But his confidence is apparent in the fact that he is already preparing a number of specific steps to be taken immediately upon assuming power, including a cost-benefit analysis of all goverment-owned companies. He wants his first 100 days to be reminiscent of those of Franklin D. Roosevelt. ''I will be ready to act immediately,'' he promised.

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