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Parizeau throws fresh fuel on sovereignty debate - but will it catch fire?

When Jacques Parizeau speaks, his words resonate across Quebec's political spectrum. Rarely do his bold views on Quebec independence leave anyone indifferent, and they often create controversy, especially within the sovereignty movement itself.

He did it again on Monday, issuing a strong criticism of the Parti Québécois for what he called "deliberate vagueness" on sovereignty. It's not enough just to talk about sovereignty, Mr. Parizeau argued, you need a plan to get there.

He slammed the PQ for failing to prepare for the next referendum on sovereignty and for refusing to commit public funds to promote and achieve independence the next time it takes office. Unless the PQ clearly states how and why Quebec must become a sovereign country, he said, the dream will remain just that, a dream rather than an achievable goal.

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"Surprisingly, public opinion remains quite attached to Quebec sovereignty, but more and more people think we won't achieve it. In any case, those who still believe in achieving the objective don't want us to go down the road of 'deliberate vagueness,'" Mr. Parizeau wrote in the Montreal daily Le Devoir.

Mr. Parizeau voiced similar criticism of his party in an interview with The Globe and Mail last June in which he said that the PQ was more interested in governing a province than building a country.

However, the timing of the former PQ premier's most recent remarks will have a far greater impact, coming less than three weeks before the first party convention in a decade that will debate the future of the sovereignty option. They also coincide with the first days of a federal election campaign in which the Bloc Québécois has launched an aggressive offensive to sweep the province.

Stephen Harper's Conservatives may be tempted to use Mr. Parizeau's arguments against the Bloc Québécois to polarize the debate in Quebec and make a case for Canadian national unity. But it remains uncertain whether Mr. Harper would want to take that chance.

Canada has changed considerably since the last referendum on sovereignty, more than 15 years ago. Quebec is no longer the centre of national attention and the province's views rarely have as much political weight as they once did. In the rest of Canada, a subtle yet persistent anti-Quebec sentiment has settled into the political landscape as expressed in some media commentary.

This new reality recently prompted Quebec Senator Jean-Claude Rivest to conclude that Canadians in other provinces appear to have little interest in Quebec, and that Quebec's reality is no longer a major component of the three major federalist parties' platforms. Quebec is being left behind.

Mr. Rivest and others fear that the rift between Quebec and the rest of Canada could grow even wider as a result of the May 2 vote, further eroding the federalist parties' presence in the province.

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So if the Conservatives want to go toe to toe with the Bloc on sovereignty, party leader Gilles Duceppe would likely welcome the challenge. Quebeckers' concerns about sovereignty and Canada's failure to renew federalism have been in hibernation, and reawakening them could stir up the kind of nationalist fervour the Bloc could use to galvanize support in the final campaign stretch.

Turning sovereignty into a central campaign theme in Quebec would require the federalist parties to offer something concrete in return for votes. Proposing the status quo wouldn't cut it. And no federalist party at this stage wants to appear to be pandering to Quebec for fear of losing votes elsewhere. And so the rift widens.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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