When Quebec's justice minister, Paul Begin, resigned last month, he lodged a public complaint that the government was moving too slowly to promote independence for this French-speaking province, which has threatened for more than 30 years to secede from Canada.
"We declare that we have an objective, but at the same time refuse to say that we will take the necessary means to achieve it," Begin complained to reporters when he stepped down. "It's a good way of killing an idea that we want to sell."
Begin's resignation set off a spirited debate about the future of the separatist movement in Quebec at a time when polls show that more and more Quebecers are disenchanted with the governing Parti Quebecois, or PQ. It was founded on the idea of casting free from Canada, but now finds itself torn from within by those who want to push for the goal at all costs and those who think it's better to wait.
Quebec, Canada's largest province and about three times the size of France, has struggled to maintain its French identity since Quebec City fell to the British in 1759. But now, many analysts see a serious decline in a separatist movement that in 1995 nearly tore Canada apart with a referendum measure that was defeated by a few thousand votes. The separatist fire has not been extinguished, but it is smoldering.
"People want to take a break," said Michel David, a political columnist for Le Devoir newspaper in Montreal. "Not to say the issue should be dead -- I don't think they want to forget it completely. But they feel like it is not the time for it."
Polls show that many younger voters believe that independence is an outmoded goal of their parents' generation and want to move on to such issues as economic development and good government.
Begin's resignation hinged on a key question dividing the movement: whether to proceed right away with another independence vote. "Begin resigned because he could not accept the referendum on sovereignty being delayed anymore," David said. "Part of the PQ thinks another referendum would be another way to galvanize people."
But Premier Bernard Landry is not convinced, because polls suggest it is all but impossible that the party could win in the near future. Landry said in a recent speech that he wanted to gain sovereignty for Quebec by 2005 or within 1,000 days. But he refused to use tax money to campaign for the cause and said the goal of 1,000 days was not concrete.
Desmond Morton, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, said the Parti Quebecois has lost its faithful. "Its leaders are saying, 'We won't talk about having a referendum until we can win. Therefore, we have to do other things, like govern well,' " Morton said. "That isn't why people signed up for the PQ. People are saying: 'To hell with it. I won't support them anymore.' "
The passionate former premier Rene Levesque brought the Parti Quebecois to power in 1976 and made independence a defining issue of Canadian politics. From the start, much of the justification was to save French culture and language from Anglo Canada.
But today, some Quebecers say that goal has largely been achieved, through laws that have firmly entrenched French ways in the province and barred discrimination.
"Things have changed," said Genevieve Polese, 27, a student. "The revolution regarding the 'rights of the minority' is no longer the issue. We as Francophones are no longer treated as lesser citizens. Hence, the basis for separation is no longer valid."
She said the economic and social costs of separation would be too high. "The 'quiet revolution' worked," she said. "That is why I can be served in two languages. The quiet revolution fought by my parents enabled me to live in French and not be discriminated against."
The movement's problems were already visible last year, when Lucien Bouchard, whom some called the greatest salesman for separatism, resigned as premier, saying he had failed to ignite the movement. When Landry replaced him as premier, he promised that independence would be his first priority and that a referendum would be held, but only "when we are going to win. The word win is prior to the word when."
Landry must call an election within a year, but the Parti Quebecois is slipping dramatically in polls as many voters turn to a new political force, the Action Democratique du Quebec. It is led by the articulate Mario Dumont, 32, who has charmed many Quebecers.
In a recent poll in Quebec, the Action Democratique led among voters with 36 percent support, while the Liberal Party, the dominant force in national politics, had 32 percent. The Parti Quebecois came in last with 27 percent. Among Francophone voters, the ADQ had 41 percent, the Liberals had 31 and the PQ had 21 percent.
"If we have an election in Quebec today, the ADQ will form the next government," said Jean Marc Leger, president of Leger Marketing, a polling firm. "For the first time in Quebec, we have a third party."
Part of the popularity of the new movement grows from the personal appeal of Dumont, who until April was the party's only elected member in Quebec's National Assembly.
He remains popular despite advocating policies that voters generally say they oppose, such as cuts in civil service jobs, a flat income tax and privatized medical care.
"Mario Dumont's position is far at the right wing," Leger said. "Quebecers are the most socialist in Canada. Only 30 percent agree with the flat tax. Sixty-six percent disagree with the idea of stripping civil servants of job security. The more we discuss the contents of the platform, the more people have a problem to vote ADQ."
Nonetheless, in June, the ADQ beat the Parti Quebecois in special elections in the voting districts of Berthier, Joliette, Saguenay and Laval, all previously strongholds for the ruling party.
"I am mad at the PQ," said longtime PQ voter Eric Dumais, 53, of Montreal. "Nobody wants to hear about separation now. It's been 30 years and nothing happened, so people are saying enough."
In Laval, where voters pushed out a PQ candidate during the special election, a group of Francophones sat at a table sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes while arguing about politics.
Richard Prevost, 34, a nurse in Laval, said he voted ADQ "to scare the PQ. They are not listening to people. They are becoming Liberals."
"I voted ADQ, absolutely," said Paul Jalbert, 57, a manufacturing agent who blames the PQ government for the loss of jobs. "I don't like Landry. I'm tired of hearing about separating. . . . In 1995, I voted yes. We lost. To me, it should have stopped right there. The result said it was a no. If it didn't work, it didn't work."
Jalbert says that times have changed. The issue now is economics. "I feel concerned about separation, but I also feel concerned about the quality of life," he said. "It is one thing to separate. But you have to eat. You have to take care of people who are sick."
But like many voters who have turned against the PQ, Jalbert hasn't given up on the idea of sovereignty. Would he vote yes in a new referendum? "You first tell me who's going to be in charge," he said. "I tell you whether I want to go or not."