QUEBEC CITY, NOV. 7 -- Twice rebuffed by English Canada in its pursuit of a distinct identity, the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec has begun a joint parliamentary and public examination of whether its people want to remain part of the 123-year-old Canadian confederation.
Following six hours of introductory speeches by most of its 36 members Tuesday, the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec today started hearing six weeks of testimony by special-interest groups, businessmen, labor union leaders, academics and the general public of Quebec in what may be one of the most important political exercises in the history of the province and of Canada.
By March 28, the commission, which was impaneled in the wake of the collapse last summer of constitutional negotiations that were intended to accord special status to Quebec as a "distinct society," is to recommend a new political and constitutional relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
The start of the hearings signaled an end to a cooling-off period called by federal and provincial leaders when the constitutional negotiations broke down last June.
With Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's appointment last week of a citizens' forum on national unity, Canada now has two major political inquiries underway, one seeking ways to hold the country together and the other to discuss how it should split up.
The Quebec commission was created by an act of the province's legislature -- the National Assembly -- with a preamble that begins, "Quebecers are free to assume their own destiny."
It is widely expected in this restive province of 7 million people that the commission's recommendations will lead to a referendum on the question of Quebec's sovereignty similar to one that was defeated in 1980 at the height of a militant, and occasionally violent, separatist campaign led by the late Parti Quebecois leader, Rene Levesque.
However, even before the start of the province-wide public hearings that are certain to dominate Canada's political agenda through the winter, it was clear that there are deep divisions within the commission over what shape Quebec's future in the Canadian confederation should take.
In their opening remarks, commission members advocated proposals ranging from a "renewed federalism" that would slightly modify the province's relationship with the central government in Ottawa to a virtual unilateral declaration of secession. In between were vaguely defined suggestions of the creation of a new Canada based on the emerging European model of economic union and loose political affiliation.
But every one of the speakers, including steadfast federalists, acknowledged that because attempts to meet Quebec's minimal demands for special constitutional recognition have run into a dead end, the option of maintaining the current federal-provincial relationship is out of the question. The failed constitutional reforms, known as the Meech Lake Accord, would have brought the province into Canada's 1982 charter. Quebec has refused to accept the constitution without the changes.
"English Canada has refused, is refusing and will refuse anything for Quebec. Only sovereignty can bring us out of the trap of a constitutional process which has proved itself it cannot work," declared Quebec Justice Minister Gil Remilliard as the commissioners gathered around a U-shaped table in the stately Red Chamber of the National Assembly building.
Jacques Parizeau, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois and Quebec's finance minister under Levesque, portrayed sovereignty as a new social contract in which Quebecers would make their own laws, collect their own taxes, sign treaties with other nations and conduct affairs of state that meet "the needs of a country that is sovereign."
Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the Quebec separatist bloc in the federal Parliament, and Gerald Larose, president of the Confederation of National Trade Unions, also argued that the only way for Quebec to overcome the constitutional impasse is to declare independence after holding a referendum.
However, even these and other militant advocates of sovereignty found common ground with committed federalists such as Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who has spoken vaguely of the need for Quebec to seek its own destiny but who has not advocated holding a sovereignty referendum.
Both sides agreed, in statements before the commission and in interviews outside, that continued prosperity in Quebec will require close economic ties to the rest of Canada no matter what form the future political relationship finally takes.
Parizeau stated that the globalization of the economy has made it possible for small countries to compete in large markets, saying, "We now know it is possible to be Danish or Luxemburger in Europe in much the same way as it would be possible to be Quebecers in a vast North American market."
It is for that reason, Parizeau said, that Quebec has consistently supported the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement and that even after achieving independence, Quebec would seek a similiar tariff-free agreement with the United States and Canada.
Jean Lambert, president of the Quebec Chamber of Commerce, warned that "even if Quebec spends a lot of energy convincing Canada and the rest of the world that it will conform to all of the accepted rules of the economic game," this alone will not completely erase the uncertainty of foreign investors.
Lambert said a sovereign Quebec could have its own currency, pegged either to the Canadian dollar or fixed to the U.S. dollar. He said the chamber recommended that Quebec remain in the Canadian monetary union, although it did not specifically rule out a Quebec dollar linked to the Canadian currency.
Bouchard, while emphasizing in his public testimony that "the federal system is chronically incapable of addressing our Quebec problems," stessed in an interview that economic considerations would weigh heavily in the commission's recommendations.
When asked to define his vision of Quebec sovereignty, Bouchard replied, "We think sovereignty is a country by itself, and a sovereign country decides everything for itself. But there is no completely independent country now. We already have and will have to have strong economic links with Canada. Quebec will be a country living in this situation."