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Canada's Leader Offers Concessions To Quebecers' Separatist Intentions

By Anne Swardson and Charles Trueheart
The Washington Post

Four weeks after a strong pro-independence vote in Quebec nearly broke apart the Canadian federation, Prime Minister Jean Chretien Monday offered Quebec significant concessions, including recognition of the French-speaking province as a "distinct society."

His proposals effectively called the bluff of Quebec's separatist leaders, who now must either oppose measures they have favored in the past or accept Chretien's offer. The Chretien initiatives, which he said were undertaken "in a spirit of partnership," also seem likely to raise objections in the rest of Canada.

The proposals are direct responses to some of the concerns that separatists say drive them toward independence, but they also offer fewer changes than many Quebecers say they require to make them choose Canada over separation. Chretien's changes would not be enshrined in the Canadian constitution, as many Quebecers wish, but instead would be enacted by the House of Commons or by both houses of Parliament.

The prime minister's announcement came less than a month after Quebec's voters rejected separation by the razor-thin vote of 50.6 percent to 49.4 percent. Chretien, who had successfully campaigned for election in 1993 by promising to stay away from the Quebec issue, pledged in the last desperate days of the referendum campaign that he would "deliver the changes that are necessary" to Quebec.

His unexpected announcement in essence throws the initiative back to Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau, who will leave office at the end of the year, and especially to Lucien Bouchard, leader of the separatist bloc in the Canadian Parliament and Parizeau's presumptive successor.

"Mr. Parizeau and Mr. Bouchard warned Quebecers during the referendum campaign that a vote in favor of Canada would lead to a show of force and an attempt to strip Quebec of its powers; that is totally false," Chretien said in announcing the measures Monday afternoon. By introducing these changes, he said, "I am following up on the commitments I made to the Quebec population during the referendum campaign."