Calling for a "new deal" between the French and English parts of Canada, the separatist government of Quebec yesterday fired the opening salvo in its campaign to persuade that French-speaking province to seek independence.
It said a sovereign Quebec in close economic union or association with the rest of Canada would provide for "a new partnership between equals."
In an appeal to Quebec's 6.3 million people to support the separatist Parti Quebecois position in a referendum next spring, provincial Premier Rene Levesque said he exepcted "at the great crossroads of the referendum to choose the only road that can open the horizon and guarantee us a free, proud and adult national existence."
"That road will be open to use by our positive and resounding answer, yes," he said.
Levesque introduced a 118-page "white paper" on the referendum that recited the long history of sensitive relations between the one-time French colony and English Canada and assered that it was too late to strike up a new relationship within the existing framework.
The Parti Quebecois is seeking a mandate, the document said, to "negotiate a new political agreement with the rest of Canada based, this time, on the legal equality of the two peoples."
In contrast to some earlier public pronouncements, the document emphasized the need to negotiate a new deal with the rest of Canada and made a strong appeal to Quebec's pride. It contained no references to the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence.
The document sought to dispel fears that a "yes" majority in a referendum vote would mean a sudden rupture in economic ties with the rest of Canada. Public opinion polls indicated that the residents of Quebec do not want outright independence but that they are not happy with things as they are.
Campaign slogans designed by Levesque's forces include one reading "Sovereignty association is to live as equals," a simple message that correponds to the prevailing view among Quebec residents that the equality of the two peoples "ought to be" an obvious goal.
The Parti Quebecois, which was swept to power in November 1976, has been committed to separatism. But its electoral tactics stress that a "yes" vote in the referendum would primarly represent an expression of political will.
"Nothing will happen abruptly," Levesque said last week while stumping the countryside. "We will negotiate and if need be" hold another referendum or elections.
Opponents of Levesque argue that a "yes" vote in the referendum would break up Canada while leaving Quebec in perilous waters. Campaign signs being put up by the federalists play upon Quebec residents' fears of an uncertain future.
"Canada, that's where I am, that's where I'll stay," one such sign reads.
The "white paper," which was issued in Quebec City, reaffirmed in greater detail the long-held positions of the Parti Quebecois.
Quebec, the document said, would "respect its commitments" toward the North American Air Defense system and NATO and would "maintain all military installations on its territory."
The province would also negotiate "a treaty of association" with Canada that would provide for a monetary union, common triffs, and the free movement of people, goods and capital.
The proposal before the voters, it said, "seeks to guarantee maximum autonomy for Quebec without breaking the economic, historical and human bonds that now link Quebec and Canada."
One new element in the document involves the proposal for a joint board to direct common monetary policies in which the number of seats allocated to the two sides "would be proportional to the relative size of each economy."
In the past, the Parti Quebecois had always insisted on strictly equal representation in any joint governing body.
The publication of the "white paper" comes on the eve of three important by-elections that will pit the separatist forces against the federalists led by Liberal leader Claude Ryan.
A federal election last spring left this nation of 23.9 million deeply divided along linguistic lines with Prime Minister Joe Clark's English-speaking Progressive Conservative Party winning only two of Quebec's 75 parliamentary seats. The separatists hve argued that the outcome has left Quebec virtually unrepresented in Ottawa, confirming their two-nation concept of Canada.
"The "white paper" did not address the possibility that the rest of Canada may not be prepared to negotiate with Levesque should his forces win the referendum.
Ryan and his supporters have argued that the only way for Quebec to remain in close economic association with Canada is under a federal system in which Quebec remains one of Canada's 10 provinces. They accuse the Parti Quebecois of seeking to obscure the issue of the economic consequences that the breakup of Canada would entail.
A recent opinion poll showed that Levesque would get a 54 percent "yes" vote if he asked for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty for Quebec in economic association with Canada.
The poll, one of the most exhaustive surveys of Quebec public opinion ever conducted, at the same time indicated that a majority would reject outright independence and separation from Canada.