07/01/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 08/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Day 2012: Low-Key Quebec Celebrations Shine Light On Debate Over National Unity

MONTREAL - As residents gathered at barbecues, parks and parades across the country to celebrate Canada Day, many in Quebec chose to focus on other things, from moving apartments to relaxing in the sun.

The national holiday has never attracted the same level of flag-waving patriotism in Quebec as seen in other parts of the country. Many in the province consider themselves Quebecers first, and Canadians second.

The province's St. Jean Baptiste Day festivities, held seven days earlier, bring together far more people.

"I celebrate both, but St. Jean is more important," 65-year-old Montreal resident Monique Bourget said while walking her dog in a park.

This year though, Canada Day in Quebec appeared to highlight a larger issue.

The long-dormant debate over national unity has come a little closer to the surface over recent months, with speculation the separatist Parti Quebecois could form the next provincial government.

The struggling Quebec Liberals could call an early fall election and the PQ, led by Pauline Marois, has a chance at leading Quebec after nearly a decade under Premier Jean Charest.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems well aware of the possible change in the province's political landscape. Earlier this month he met with former prime minister Brian Mulroney and Charest for advice on the national unity issue.

The Conservatives have little clout in the province, having won just five of Quebec's 75 federal seats in the last election. That puts them in a weak position to lead any renewed unity debate.

It appears the rest of Canada may not be up for another national unity test either.

A poll released last week suggested many in the rest of Canada aren't too worried about Quebec, with about half saying they don't care if the province splits from the rest of Canada.

Meanwhile in Quebec itself, sovereignty — which has historically been a hot topic — doesn't seem to be ranking as high with many voters today. Another recent poll suggested only four per cent saw it as the key election issue, well behind corruption and the conflict over tuition fee increases in the province.

But Quebec's determination to maintain a cultural identity distinct from the rest of Canada seems to persist.

"We are Quebecois, that's what makes us unique in North America," said Robert Dufour, a 61-year-old Montreal resident and longtime sovereigntist.

"People compare us to Ontario, and say maybe we should be this way or that way, but we're not Ontario."

Dufour added though that there's no longer the same sense of urgency to see Quebec form its own country.

"I don't think the Parti Quebecois is the inspiration it once was," he said. "The PQ is more focused on a good administration that would benefit Quebecers, rather than holding a referendum (on sovereignty)."

Dufour said Quebec's protests over tuition fees, which spawned a far broader movement related to social and environmental issues, are further proof that Quebecers have different values than the rest of Canada.

The next generation in Quebec has shown it wants to ensure the province retains its social values, he said.

Lorne Bozinoff, president of the polling firm Forum Research, noted the Parti Quebecois has avoided making sovereignty its main issue.

"I think the key thing is they've stayed away from saying they'll hold a referendum," Bozinoff said. "I think until they say we're going to have a referendum, it's a different ball game."

There were, of course, events still held to mark Canada Day in Quebec on Sunday, including a parade in downtown Montreal that drew a sizeable crowd. And an emotional citizenship ceremony marked a day of festivities at the city's Old Port.

Emi Wang, a 25-year-old who moved to Montreal from China three years ago, said she planned to attend the parade. She takes part in St. Jean celebrations as well and finds both holidays a lot of fun.

"It's a very special place," she said of Montreal. "I find it really different than all the other Canadian cities. Living here is like living in America and Europe at the same time."

That doesn't mean Quebecers were celebrating en masse though.

For many Montrealers, July 1 is known more as the city's annual moving day than anything else.

This year there was an added distraction, with the city's large Italian and Spanish communities preoccupied by soccer's European Championship final.

Leading up to the holiday, the biggest buzz in Quebec was over the decision by the Harper government to lead the celebrations in Ottawa with a rendition of "God Save The Queen," irking those Quebecers who feel no connection with the monarchy.

Still, one Montreal-area resident, Andre Linskiy, said he would make the two-hour trip to Ottawa to join the big bash on Parliament Hill.

"We drive there with our kids because nothing is scheduled here," he said.

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