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Ten years later, Quebec again flirts with independence Sat Oct 29, 5:42 PM ET
MONTREAL (AFP) - Ten years after a referendum failed to break up Canada, independence advocates of the French-speaking province of Quebec are vowing to try again to win their sovereignty.
With support for Quebec independence climbing as high as 56 percent this year, according to the polling firm CROP in Montreal, the Parti Quebecois, the principal force behind the separatist movement, hopes to quickly call another referendum if the party regains power in the next provincial election, expected in 2007.
All nine candidates hoping to lead the Parti Quebecois, which has been in opposition since 2003, have declared their support for a new referendum.
Ten years ago, on October 30, 1995, Quebec nationalists came within a hair of realizing their dream of independence when they captured 49.4 percent support in a vote to separate from Canada, versus 50.6 percent who favored preserving Canadian unity.
The two camps were only 54,000 votes apart.
That shot across Canada's bow came so close that the federal government immediately launched a campaign to woo back the hearts of Quebecers. But those efforts backfired and resulted in what some say is the biggest political scandal in Canadian history.
The rebel province was inundated with Canadian symbols such as its maple leaf flag, but the campaign was marred by allegations that advertising firms who received taxpayer money to promote federalism gave 100 million Canadian dollars (85 million dollars) in kickbacks to the Liberal Party.
"After 1995, instead of really reforming the country to satisfy Quebecers' desire for some autonomy, Canada spent vast sums of money to expunge Quebecers' identity," said Jean-Francois Lisee, a former advisor to Jacques Parizeau, the premiere of Quebec during the 1995 referendum.
Pundits say the rise in separatist sentiment is a direct result of the sponsorship scandal, whose consequences have not yet been fully felt as a judicial inquiry investigating the matter is set to report Tuesday.
The Parti Quebecois is now benefiting from the Liberal Party's declining popularity both in Ottawa and in Quebec, although the Liberals still control both the federal and provincial parliaments.
And even Quebec federalists do not hide their desire for more provincial autonomy.
"The challenge for federalist politicians today is to find a way to accommodate Quebec's unique character within the Canadian federation," said Quebec Liberal minister Benoit Pelletier.
Many of Quebec's 7.6 million people still feel uncomfortable as part of Canada, a country of 32 million mostly Anglophones who refuse, Quebecers say, to recognize their province as a distinct society with its roots in French culture.
Pro-independence sentiment has risen with the support of younger generations of Quebecers, while older generations who are often more sympathetic towards Canada are beginning to fade away, according to a recent study by sociologists Simon Langlois and Gilles Gagne of Laval University in Quebec.
Ironically, young Canadians outside Quebec are also emboldened by a sense of pride in their regions. Western Canadians, for example, have recently begun asserting their own growing political clout within the federation.
Elsie Lefebvre, 26, a Parti Quebecois member of the provincial legislative assembly, said her generation is motivated by a desire for their own country in order simply to have more control over their own destiny.
"For my generation, sovereignty is not anti-Canada, but pro-Quebec, in contrast to past campaigns," Lefebvre told AFP.
"Canada is a beautiful country, but it is not mine," she said.