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Charles's Quebec stop a snooze for protesters Add to ...

About 100 nationalist demonstrators forced Prince Charles to scurry in the back door of his own Black Watch regimental headquarters yesterday.

But even as chief protester Patrick Bourgeois faced riot police, he had to admit the rallying cries were muffled by a thick fog of Quebec indifference.

"There's a big part of the population that doesn't care at all," said Mr. Bourgeois, head of the fringe nationalist group Réseau de résistance du Québécois.

"But it's a lovely occasion for us to crank up the nationalist ground machine, and get some experience. We're against the monarchy, but Prince Charles is not our priority. We just couldn't resist."

Activists, including many familiar faces who never miss a chance to confront police, chanted anti-monarchist slogans and tossed a few eggs at the imposing stone building before riot police arrived to clear the street.

Journalists, security personnel, royal watchers and rubberneckers outnumbered protesters by at least two to one.

Charles, the regimental colonel-in-chief, was delayed nearly an hour before he and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, entered by a back alley.

While the rude royal welcome will undoubtedly make headlines in the British press, a Royal Family visit would have triggered a much wider political backlash in the heyday of Quebec nationalism.

Not now. Except for the few dozen protesters, the short trip to Quebec was met with almost total indifference, a visit void of much spontaneous exuberance or outrage.

Major Michael Boire, a military man of 45 years, wore his medals as he bravely argued with protesters an hour before presiding over the event. He described the scene as "great progress."

"There was a time when a member of the Royal Family wouldn't dare set foot in Quebec," said Major Boire, a historian at Royal Military College.

Premier Jean Charest welcomed the royal couple with an Inuit sculpture and a DVD collection of Quebec films, including one entitled C.R.A.Z.Y. and another about a small town's effort to seduce a doctor by appealing to his love of cricket.

For the Premier, who chatted with the couple in French, there was no political risk in the courtesy visit. Constitutional tensions have been buried for almost 15 years, and nothing on the horizon suggests the visit could enliven support for Quebec sovereignty.

If anything, Mr. Charest believes Charles and Camilla may be allies in pushing a new trade deal between Europe and Canada and in the quest for tougher greenhouse-gas-emission standards at next month's conference on climate change in Copenhagen.

"There's nothing controversial. It's simply a courtesy visit," said a senior Charest adviser.

Tensions were much more palpable when the Queen visited Quebec in 1987. Then-premier Robert Bourassa used the visit to show loyalty to a united Canada as the debate started over constitutional changes aimed at recognizing Quebec as a distinct society.

In 1964, as the nationalist movement gained momentum, a visit by the Queen to Quebec City spawned a bloody riot. Baton-swinging police officers struck an angry crowd protesting against the British "colonial rule" over French-speaking Quebec.

Laval University political scientist Réjean Pelletier remembers the 1964 riot, called " samedi de la matraque," or Truncheon Saturday, and said the public's reaction yesterday confirms Quebeckers' "total indifference" to the monarchy.

"It doesn't interest anyone. Perhaps there would be a bit more interest if it was the Queen. But it would be fair to say that in Quebec, the monarchy is a thing of the past and it is also increasingly so in the rest of Canada. Most would be happy if it would disappear tomorrow," Mr. Pelletier said.

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