President Clinton came to Canada today and waded into the country's most divisive political issue, declaring that French-speaking Quebec would be better off within Canada rather than pressing for independence.

"The suggestion that people of a given ethnic group or tribe or religion can only have a meaningful communal existence if they have their own independent nation is a questionable assertion," Clinton said at an international conference on federalism at the Quebec resort of Mont Tremblant Village.

The momentum of history, said Clinton, is toward more political integration, not disintegration.

Although avoiding many direct references to Quebec itself, the fact that Clinton delivered his speech in Quebec at the invitation of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a staunch federalist, left little doubt of where the president stood on what has been the central question in Canadian politics for the past 30 years.

Earlier in the day, in dedicating a striking and controversial new U.S. Embassy in the shadow of Canada's Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Clinton reaffirmed his support for a "strong and united Canada." To emphasize the point, he and Chretien announced new initiatives to ease border crossings between the two countries and make it easier for Canadian firms to bid on U.S. defense contracts.

Clinton's ringing support for Canadian federalism comes as Chretien's government is preparing for what it hopes will be the final assault on the so-called sovereigntist movement in Quebec.

Recent polls show that support for secession in Quebec stands at about 45 percent, down 5 percent from its peak in 1995 when the vote went narrowly against separation in a referendum. And with 70 percent of voters now opposed to having another divisive referendum battle any time soon, Quebec's secessionist premier, Lucien Bouchard, has dropped plans for another ballot next year, saying it would be held "when the moment is ripe."

To help ensure that the moment will never be ripe, Chretien's government recently embarked on a get-tough policy with the Quebec government. Canadian ambassadors around the world received fresh instructions to object to any gestures of official recognition of Quebec sovereignty. And federal scholarships for thousands of Quebec college students are being held up until Quebec agrees to give Ottawa some say in how the money is distributed and to put the maple leaf--the country's symbol--on the checks.

More significantly, Chretien is preparing to push through legislation promising that Canada will not negotiate Quebec's withdrawal from the 130-year-old Canadian federation unless significantly more than 50 percent of Quebec's residents favor it in a clearly worded referendum question. How much higher than 50 percent is still being worked out.

For Chretien, Quebec is almost an obsession. A French speaker and a Quebec native, Chretien has been considered a turncoat by many in his home province, while Quebec's separatist-leaning media and intellectuals have often dismissed him as a rube.

But with Chretien's popularity now nearly equal to Bouchard's in Quebec, his aides and advisers this week said the prime minister is intent on pressing his advantage and winning a measure of vindication.

"We're very confident right now," one adviser said.

Even supporters of Quebec sovereignty now concede that Bouchard's Parti Quebecois may soon lose power in Quebec. "As a political party, it may be past its moment," said Guy LaForest, a political scientist at the University of Quebec.

Chretien's hard line against Quebec has certainly boosted his popularity in the rest of Canada, which has grown weary of the issue. But at the same time, it has hardened opinions on both sides of the linguistic and cultural divide.

For example, 20 years after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced the country's commitment to bilingualism, only about 7 percent of Canadians outside Quebec can speak both official languages--and most of them live near Quebec. Across the country it is common to hear opinion leaders say they don't care whether Quebec stays in Canada.

Longtime political observers here say Chretien could try to stem this widening gulf by using his popularity to craft some sort of grand compromise recognizing Quebec's unique status within the Canadian federation--a route Clinton hinted at in his talk on federalism. But Chretien says any such attempt is likely to fail, and perhaps reinvigorate the secessionist movement.

"Jean Chretien right now is looking to put the lid on the separatist movement," said Randy Pettipas, a former aide and political organizer for the prime minister. "He's a competitive person, and he's looking for a solid win."

The separatist question was not the only thing on Clinton's agenda today.

After a week of intense negotiations, the United States agreed to restore a special status for Canada, which had been revoked last spring, allowing Canadian defense firms to compete for a wider range of U.S. defense contracts involving sensitive military technology.

In return, Canada agreed to toughen its regulations on technology transfer, putting them more in line with U.S. regulations.