By David Ljunggren
VARENNES, Quebec (Reuters) - Less than two decades ago, in perhaps the most traumatic moment in modern Canadian history, the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec came within a hair's breadth of voting for independence.
And while another vote may still be years away separatist sentiment is back on the agenda as an opposition party, dedicated to carving Canada into two, heads for victory in the September 4 provincial election.
The Parti Quebecois (PQ) complains that Quebec does not make enough from rich reserves of iron, zinc, nickel, copper and gold and wants to force mining firms to pay higher royalties. It also plans to make it harder for foreign firms to take over Quebec companies.
It will strengthen already tough language laws to ensure French dominates, and promises a third referendum on splitting off from Canada when the time is right.
"Time is playing against Canada in the sense that slowly but surely the attachment Quebecers have for Canada is withering," said PQ legislator Stephane Bergeron, 47, tipped as a likely minister in a future PQ government.
"I think reality is going to catch up with Canada," he told Reuters as he campaigned in his constituency of Vercheres, a separatist stronghold along the St. Lawrence River east of Montreal.
Quebec -- where 80 percent of the 7.8 million population are native French-speakers -- has always sat rather uneasily inside a largely anglophone Canada of 34.5 million, celebrating its own provincial holiday with far more fervor than the July 1 Canada Day.
To quit Canada, separatists would have to win a new referendum. The pro-independence side lost heavily in 1980, but the 1995 referendum was much tighter, and separatists won 49.4 percent of the vote.
PQ leader Pauline Marois says she would hold a referendum "tomorrow" if she felt sure of victory, but it looks unlikely now, given polls that put support for independence at only 40 percent.
For the time being she promises to focus on the economy, healthcare and education, assuming she wrests power from the ruling Liberals, as most pollsters expect.
That said, the mood of the electorate here is traditionally more volatile than in the rest of Canada, both in federal and in provincial politics, and sentiment on independence can change quickly as well.
The PQ, which first took office in 1976, says Quebec is mature enough to break away. The party is ahead in the polls, in part thanks to disillusionment with Liberals after nine years in power.
A third party is the newly created Coalition for the Future of Quebec (CAQ), headed by a former PQ minister, which wants to put off talk of referendums for a decade and concentrate on the economy.
Pollsters can't say for sure if the PQ will win the majority they would need to hold a referendum, or if it will have a minority, and need support from other parties to push through important legislation.
Leger Marketing pollster Christian Bourque said voters were not overly enthused by Marois, who even supporters complain lacks the charisma needed to mount a referendum campaign, and preferred the government to focus on the economy. Marois would be the first ever female premier of Quebec.
"The electorate wants to get rid of the Liberals after nine years but they don't want the natural alternative option, which is the PQ," said Bourque. "So, you've got two-thirds of people who want to beat the Liberals and two-thirds of Quebecers who don't want the PQ."
Even a minority PQ win would set the stage for clashes with the federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, given that the party plans to accumulate as much power as it can.
The PQ wants to set up a separate Quebec citizenship and take full control of unemployment benefits, immigration policy and business development funds.
'TWO WORLDS, TWO PHILOSOPHIES'
Quebecers often complain they have little in common with the rest of Canada, particularly now that the right-of-center Conservatives are in power. Harper's tough-on-crime agenda and love of the English monarchy win him few friends here.
"It's two worlds, it's two philosophies ... we'd like to be 100 percent at home, that's the difference, to really have all our own laws," said photographer Gilles Duchesneau, a long-time PQ supporter. "Canada is a nice country, but it's a nice country to visit."
Pro-independence Quebecers might be inspired by events across the Atlantic. In Scotland, nationalists are pressing to hold a 2014 referendum that would pave the way for gaining independence from the United Kingdom.
Harper is refusing to comment on the Quebec election. But in the past he has often railed against separatists, increasing the sense of alienation among Quebecers.
Liberal Premier Jean Charest, his party under fire amid a damaging inquiry into corruption and angry student protests against higher tuition fees, says Marois would place a "sword of Damocles" over Quebec with her talk of independence.
"The last thing we need is referendum threats," he told her during a televised debate. "You're gambling at the casino with Quebec's future."
CAPABLE OF MAKING IT ALONE?
The French settled what is now Canada in the early 17th century and parts of major cities like Montreal and Quebec City still look more like Europe than North America - a fact that Quebec stresses gleefully in advertisements aimed at U.S. visitors.
But the French were forced to hand over control to Britain in 1763, and as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, English still dominated business. The majority francophone population led what it felt to be a second-class existence with little political influence and a marginalized language.
Denis Marion, mayor of the town of Massueville, recalls that a Montreal store assistant once snapped "Speak white" (English) at his grandmother. "Those are things you don't forget ... it's part of our genes," he said.
Now the conversation on the streets is in French and stop signs read "Arret" rather than "Stop." Vehicle license plates bear the motto "Je me souviens" ("I remember"), a reference to French rule, and blue and white Quebec flags, inspired in part by the ancient royal flags of France, flutter outside many houses.
The 1995 referendum was a moment of enormous upheaval for Canada and a few days before the vote, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Montreal for a "unity rally" to persuade Quebecers to vote no.
The chances of a repeat look unlikely. An Ipsos-Reid poll in late June showed 49 percent of Canadians did not really care if Quebec broke away.
If Quebec breaks away no one can yet say what currency it would use, how big its debt would be and whether it would automatically become a member of the North American free trade pact alongside the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Bergeron, the lawmaker, is sure these questions can be resolved amicably, yet economic issues worry some supporters.
"A lot of people want to see the precise figures. If we become independent how much will it cost and how big will our debt be?" pensioner and long-time PQ voter Norman Nobert said at a meal for retirees in the town of Varennes, which is part of Bergeron's riding.
Fellow PQ supporter Huguette Plante fretted whether Quebec would be able to exploit its own rich mineral resources.
"As part of Canada we are stronger economically. Are we capable of making it alone? That's the problem," she said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Gevirtz)