- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 24, 2002

MONTREAL There was a time in the 1990s when Quebec's language war got so nasty that the Canadian anthem couldn't be sung at ballgames, so loudly would the French-speaking fans boo the English-language song.

Nowadays, the fans just wait good-naturedly for the game to start.

The relaxed atmosphere is just one manifestation of what looks like a different Quebec, secure in its Frenchness and less anxious to break free of the Canadian embrace. The long struggle that at one point descended into terrorism, threatened to tear Canada apart and dragged Quebec through two divisive referendums on sovereignty, seems to have been put on the back burner.

One piece of evidence is the rising fortunes of legislator Mario Dumont, 32. Preaching lower taxes, spending cuts and private health care, he is the model of a modern mold-breaker. Most significant, however, is his insistence that Quebec sovereignty, while not a dead issue, is not a priority.

His party, Action Democratique du Quebec, started the year with one seat in the 125-member provincial legislature. It now has five, having unseated representatives of the ruling and separatist Parti Quebecois, in one special election after another.

Mr. Dumont's party leads in opinion polls, and some analysts can imagine it being strong enough to take power by the time provincial elections roll around next year.

The reasons behind the truce over separatism are many: a feeling that the language battle has been largely won; the autonomous powers that give Quebec significant control of taxes, education and immigration policies; the sense that in a wired and globalizing world, issues of sovereignty suddenly seem narrower.

Indeed, some now worry that in a world that increasingly relies on English, Quebecois who don't speak the language will be at a disadvantage.

Premier Bernard Landry has insisted the next election will also be about sovereignty, that his Parti Quebecois will stick to its goal even if it loses votes. "There's no question of deviating from this objective for any short-term political rationale," Mr. Landry has said.

The Parti Quebecois has been in power for two terms, and that provides another challenge: No party has won a Quebec provincial election three times in a row since the 1950s.

Another newly elected legislator for Action Democratique du Quebec is Francois Corriveau, who is the same age as Mr. Dumont. He voted for Quebec sovereignty in the last referendum, in 1995, but now calls for new thinking.

"People in their 30s have lived through all the disappointments of the last 20 years," he said. "We want an end to the quarrels with the federal government."

As a child, Louis Balthazar felt alienated as a French speaker. Store clerks served him in English, movies were in English, people on the streets spoke English.

Today, strolling down Boulevard Rene-Levesque, formerly Dorchester Street, one feels the changes of the past decades: people chatting mostly in French, ordering meals from French menus, renting the latest French movies from video stores.

The French language, cuisine and fashion feel as organic to Montreal as they do to Paris. The bars stay open later and the corner groceries sell wine, much to the delight of visiting teens from the more button-down neighboring province Ontario.

To Mr. Balthazar, a semiretired political science professor at Laval University, the triumph of French has made the Parti Quebecois "a spent force." The 7.4 million people of Quebec "have a very strong identity and want to be respected," he said. "But they also want to be part of Canada."

Quebec, well over twice the size of Texas with one-third its population, has always been a contentious subject: in the 1760s, when the British completed their takeover of what was then New France; in 1867, when the country of Canada was formed as a dominion under Queen Victoria, and a century later, when French President Charles de Gaulle visited Montreal and electrified the Quebecois with his cry of "Vive le Quebec libre" long live free Quebec.

But try as they might, the separatists have failed in two referendums to muster a majority for independence, even though they have couched their goal in terms of remaining in some form of association with Canada's other nine provinces and three territories.

Quebec's separateness is reflected in many critical ways. Its legal system is based on the Napoleonic Code, while the rest of Canada follows English common law. It raises its own income tax. It sets its own immigration rules, geared to attract French speakers. And it has a law favoring French over English.

Yet it remains sufficiently embedded in Canada to have produced the three dominant national figures of the past 30 years: Prime Ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and the present one, Jean Chretien.

The struggle over Quebec's future began to sharpen in the late 1960s, when the Parti Quebecois was formed under the leadership of a TV commentator-turned-politician named Rene Levesqu who would go on to rule the province for nine years.

Things reached their low point in 1970 when a shadowy militant group called the Quebec Liberation Front, demanding "total independence," kidnapped and killed Quebec's labor minister and separately abducted but freed a British diplomat.

In 1977 came the Charter of the French Language, banning the display of signs in English, with language police to enforce the new rules. An exodus of English-speakers followed. The English-speaking population of Quebec, which had been 13.1 percent in 1971, dwindled to 8.8 percent over the next 25 years.

In 1980, Mr. Levesque held the referendum he had promised but didn't get what he hoped for. Quebec voted 3-2 to stay in Canada.

Fifteen years later, another referendum dealt the separatists a hairbreadth defeat. Today, sensing that voters are tired of the subject, the up-and-coming Mr. Dumont scores points by promising no more referendums for at least five years.

Meanwhile, legal challenges to the constitutionality of the language laws have resulted in compromises whereby bilingual signs are permitted, as long as the French lettering is larger.

James Berlyn is a teacher of children with disabilities and a fourth-generation Scottish-Quebecois. He says a half-dozen of his friends moved out in the early 1980s, but nowadays he feels no pressure. "I know just a little French, and it hasn't kept me from working here," he said.

Eardley Dowling is an English-speaking real estate agent living among French-speakers. He also sees a decline in separatist fervor, but still considers the subject too touchy to raise with his neighbors. "That would be explosive," he said. "That would mean the end of the friendship."

Indeed, the sovereignty issue may be on ice, but the language question still flares up regularly.

Three Montreal outlets of Second Cup, a Canadian coffee-shop chain, were firebombed in October 2000. A group calling itself the French Self-Defense Brigade claimed responsibility.

But as Lucien Bouchard, Quebec's premier at the time, explained, the law exempts trademarks. A company can't be forced to change its name in order to operate in Quebec, he said. "Wal-Marts exist, Toys R Us exist, and that has not provoked an outcry."

Still, the government remains vigilant. A new law is being enacted to impose more French in the workplace, and lately Web sites in Quebec with insufficient French content have been getting warnings. But the number of complaints overall is falling, according to the government's French language office 1,686 complaints of noncompliance in 1998-99, but only 992 the following year. The office says this is mainly because companies have learned the signboard rules.

Language spats still can quickly become causes celebre, as Formula One racer Jacques Villeneuve, a Quebecois, discovered last year when he opened a Montreal nightclub called Newtown, the English translation of his name.

Although the name is legally trademarked, it provoked a dozen complaints to the language office. "You have to see further than your nose," Mr. Villeneuve protested at a news conference. "It's a big world. I grew up a lot of the time in Switzerland, where people speak three or four languages and no one gets angry at each other."

Benoit Gignac, son of the beloved Quebec singer Fernand Gignac, told the Montreal Gazette this summer that he no longer fears for the French language. "I think the battles we led in the 1960s and 1970s for the French language were extremely salutary," he said. "What has been accomplished is pretty irreversible in the end. The confidence we have gained, we will never lose."

But Lucie Chartrand, a campaigner for sovereignty, says the battle isn't over.

She fears Quebec's low birthrate threatens its culture. Young Quebecois are spoiled, she said: They have never known the humiliation of shopping at an English-owned department store and being snapped at by a sales clerk for speaking French.

Mrs. Chartrand, who is in her 60s and does charity work, blames past referendum defeats on scare tactics by the federal government. She remembers being warned that if Quebec went independent, the Canadian dollar would weaken to 75 U.S. cents.

Quebec is still in Canada, but the Canadian dollar today is worth only 63 U.S. cents.

Mr. Balthazar, the political scientist, cautions against writing off the sovereignty issue.

Mr. Dumont, he said, is in tune with the current mood of putting the issue aside but not writing it off. "He keeps sovereignty in his pocket, just in case. That's how we have accomplished things and won battles by keeping the threat of separation as an option."

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