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If last week's Supreme Court ruling that Quebec cannot secede unilaterally had been made before the province's last referendum on secession, Quebeckers would have voted for independence from Canada, the province's separatist Premier Lucien Bouchard said.

Although the court said Quebec could not simply declare independence on its own after winning a referendum on the issue, Bouchard noted, it also said the rest of Canada has an obligation to negotiate the terms of separation if "a clear majority" of Quebeckers vote to leave Canada.

He said that distinction might have made all the difference in the 1995 plebiscite on independence, which the separatists lost by less than 1 percent.

During that vote, federalists effectively scared many "soft" pro-independence voters by insisting the rest of Canada "would never, never negotiate," he said.

"We lost a lot of support because of that," he added.

But, he continued, "the next time men and women in Quebec will be able to vote yes (for independence) with the certainty that negotiations will take place and that everything will be put into place for an orderly transition toward sovereignty."

What a change two years can make. In 1996, when the questions about Quebec's right to secede were put to the Supreme Court to clarify whether the French-speaking province has the legal right to leave Canada under Canadian or international law, Bouchard refused to participate in the case, calling the high court justices lackeys of the federal government determined to keep Quebec in the Canadian "prison."

Now, like commentators across Quebec, Bouchard is praising the justices for acknowledging that while neither the Canadian Constitution nor international law gives Quebec the right to leave Canada, the question is primarily a political one for the people of Quebec to decide.

And should Quebeckers opt for independence, the rest of Canada is obliged to negotiate the terms of separation, even though the court cautioned that "no one can predict the course that such negotiations might take."

For those hard-line Canadian nationalists who considered Bouchard a traitor, the court said he is not a traitor -- only a political extremist.

Indeed, the court's insistence that any division of the country be handled in an orderly and peaceful manner removed the "fear card" from the deck of the federalists and left them scrambling for another one to play.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and the leader of Quebec's opposition Liberal Party, Jean Charest, were both trying to find areas of separatist weakness in the court ruling.

After describing the ruling as "a victory for all Canadians," Chretien tried to find a negative light to shine on the separatist cause.

Though the court said the federal government and the province must negotiate the terms of separation, Chretien said he cannot negotiate on his own.

"If I say yes and the provinces say no," he said, the negotiations will not be like mailing a letter. "It might be a little bit (more) complicated," he said.

Charest, too, took pains to note the court's ruling also opened the door to the possibility the boundaries of present-day Quebec might be altered as part of the terms of independence.

"No Quebec leader has ever accepted this possibility before," he said.

Just prior to the court's ruling, most observers expected Bouchard would use a ruling against the cause of Quebec independence as a major platform in the next provincial election -- expected this year.

Now, the campaign will be held on other issues, like jobs, the Quebec economy and health care, Charest said in a news conference.

Recent polls in Quebec show an overwhelming majority of its citizens do not want to face another referendum in the near future. But Bouchard's separatist Parti Quebecois is committed to holding such a vote if it wins the next election.

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