QuEbec has been arguing about independence since before Naike Halin was born. This spring the Montreal student had the chance to have her say on the future of Canada's sometimes reluctant Francophone province. She didn't take it. Amid feverish talk of an historic third referendum on "sovereignty", the 26-year-old abstained in April elections for the territory's National Assembly.

"I didn't vote," she says, picking at her take-out lunch below a statue of Robert Burns in Dorchester Square, the heart of downtown Montreal. "I don't think any of the parties have anything to offer. During the campaign a lot of people got very mad, going from one extreme to another. I just ended up steering conversations away from politics."

Ms Halin isn't the only Quebecer tired of 40 years of sometimes ill-tempered constitutional wrangling. Quebec is the first and only place in the world to ever vote against its own independence. And it did so twice, in 1980 and 1995.

With support for sovereignty slumping, even the idea of another plebiscite rancours.

April's elections saw a minority government of the pro-independence or "sovereigntist" Parti Quebecois hammered. Instead of getting the overall majority it sought, the PQ, arguably the SNP of the Americas, crashed to its biggest defeat since it first surged in the early 1970s.

Why? Because it couldn't quite bring itself to rule out rebooting what English-speaking Canadians have long dubbed the "neverendum".

Francophone youth such as Ms Halin, whose parents are Belgian, are drifting away from the PQ.

So much so that La Presse, the staunchly unionist or "federalist" French-language daily in Montreal, this month called them "Generation Non".

Support for the main sovereigntist party among 18-24 year olds, a poll for the paper found, had hit a low of 16%.

Worse, for the PQ at least, the survey also found 65% of the age group felt the entire debate on the future of Quebec was depasse: obsolete; outmoded; over. The same proportion thought the province, or "nation within Canada", would never become an independent country.

However, that doesn't mean that they have taken to waving Maple Leaf flags: only 28%, according to the poll, felt more Canadian than Quebecer. Separatism, or sovereigntism, may be on the wane; nationalism is not.

This resonates for Michael Keating, professor of Scottish Politics at Aberdeen University and head of the Future of the UK and Scotland programme run by the Economic and Social Research Council. He reckons Scotland, still in the grips of its first independence referendum, may well follow suit.

"There is a Quebec Scenario for Scotland," says Keating, a veteran observer of Canada and UK. "There will probably be a No vote. But even with a No, the SNP will probably win again. There has been a change in Scotland: society has been politicised to an enormous extent and all issues are now viewed through a Scottish lens, not a British one. That is a permanent change."

This is how Scottish nationalists, like their counterparts in Quebec, can both win and lose. They lose the war, the referendum. But they win the peace, the post-vote aftermath that refocuses political life on Holyrood as Westminster shrinks back so far independence no longer feels necessary. That, at least, is the theory of Scotland's Quebec Scenario.

What about the practical reality in North America? Is Quebec independentism really dead - or facing wipeout in a generation? Have the grievances that spawned it gone? And what can Scots learn from this?

Manuel Galves has a little dance to explain the differences between Quebec's two great tribes, the majority "French" and minority "English". The 63-year-old musician has lived in Montreal since he fled dictator Augusto Pinochet's Chile in the early 1970s, way long enough to sum up the stereotypes of his neighbours.

"The French are basically Latins," he says, waving his arms by his side as if sashaying across a 60s disco to underline the assertion. "They are easy-going and enjoy life." What about the English? "Uptight," he says, straightening his back and tightening an imaginary tie.

This is east Montreal. For east, read Francophone. For generations the island city was neatly divided by a street that, in French at least, took the name of the great river in which it's perched: Boulevard Saint Laurent, St Lawrence Boulevard. To the west of the Main, as Anglophones call the same road, life was largely carried out in English, at least until the 1970s. To the east, in French. Worse, according to Quebecer folklore with more than a dose of truth to it, to the west of Saint Laurent were the bosses; to the east, their workers.

For generations many French

-speaking Quebecers, Quebecois, felt like second-class citizens in their own country, linguistically and economically. They were, they thought, a skivvy class. Their language, their very identity, they sensed, was in peril due to a domineering and encroaching North American Anglo-Saxon culture.

That, since Quebec's Quiet Revolution of the 1960s kick-started demands for autonomy and equality, has changed. Power has shifted. But not, reckons Mr Galves, quite enough.

The Chilean is in Parc La Fontaine, relaxing over a take-away coffee and a cigarette in the early summer sunshine next to a monument to Felix Leclerc, re-inventor of the province's traditional folk music, its chansons, in the 50s and 60s just as the rest of North America, and Scotland after it, exploded with pop.

"The English have everything," Mr Galves says. "They have rock'n'roll, they have punk and they have hip hop. Some of them wouldn't even know who Leclerc is. They talk about Quebec as if it's dirty.

"There is a lack of respect for Quebecers; there is no respect for Quebec culture."

This doesn't make Mr Galves an independence supporter .

"For me," he says, "the solution is Quebec as a distinct province where French culture is protected."

But it does set out the big gripe that fuelled demands for sovereignty, or something very close to it, since the late 1960s.

That was when the liberals and small "n" nationalists of the province, both determined in their own way to champion French and the French-speakers, split into the two forces that have defined them until today.

The first were federalists, those who wanted a bilingual Canada of equals. The second were sovereigntists, those who wanted an independent Quebec, albeit in "association" or later "partnership" with the federal state.

The federalists were led by Pierre Trudeau, who became prime minister of Canada; the sovereigntists had Rene Levesque, who became provincial premier. As Trudeau liberalised Canada, Levesque transformed Quebec. First Levesque introduced a law, Bill 101, that effectively made French the state language all over the province, east and west of Boulevard St Laurent.

Then, in 1980, just after Scotland's failed attempt at devolution, he called a first referendum on what he called "sovereignty-association". It was lost, by a margin of three-to-two, amid pledges over more autonomy that never quite materialised.

"Next time", Levesque said after the defeat.

That next time came in 1995, when after the failure of two Canada-wide deals on advanced devolution, Levesque's successor Jacques Parizeau called a second vote on "sovereignty-association" - although his question, and concept, was far from clear to all voters. Now the result was narrower, practically 50-50.

But the two referendums, Bill 101 and years of PQ rule had a huge impact. Montreal, once the commercial heart of Canada, lost corporate HQs, albeit some replaced by new French-owned businesses. Sun Life, whose building still overshadows that statue of Robert Burns in Dorchester Square, quit for Toronto.

Unwilling or unable to learn the language and live with constitutional uncertainty, so did tens of thousands of Anglophones, many of them Scots. Their culture, at least in part, went too. Halin and her friend Jessica Ferreira, 24, picnicking in the bard's shadow, did not know who Burns was.

Alain-G Gagnon thinks this history is crucial to understanding how Quebecers have got to where they are: "soft" nationalists who don't want a vote on independence. Quebec's separatists, he reckons, are victims of their own success.

In his office of UQAM - the redbrick Francophone university founded when Leclerc was at the height of his fame and Levesque forging the PQ - he explains why. "This generation doesn't have to fight the battles of their parents, the baby boomers and their children. To a large extent the grievances, the economic and language grievances, have gone.

" The Francophones used to be the porteur d'eau, the real second classes. But this is longer the case. Now the Francophones are economic leaders of what we call Quebec Inc. It is not essential for them for the country to achieve independence."

This is not so much Generation No and Generation Don't Care, argues Mr Gagnon.

"We should not jump too quickly to the conclusion that the young are turning their backs on national emancipation," he says. "It seems to me they felt they are already independent. Not that the government has all the power it needs, but as individuals they can have a full life. They don't owe anything to anyone. There's this idea they can be a citizens of the world. They are much more educated. A lot of them are trilingual. They see no frontiers."

However, young Quebecers do see one barrier.

"They have turned their back on Canada," Mr Gagnon said. "They are not disenfranchised. But they are totally alienated from the rest of Canada. They don't connect very much with other Canadians. They travel to Europe and the States but not Canada."

This is the drift Mr Keating talks of for Scotland. Will the irrelevance of Canada in Montreal become the irrelevance of Britain in Glasgow or Edinburgh?

Mr Gagnon reckons the consensus is now gelled around soft nationalism. He says: "We have also to realise all parties in Quebec are nationalist.We don't see it that way from the outside. But the ruling federalist Liberals, the PLQ; Quebec Solidaire; the PQ, they are all nationalist parties."

But that also means sovereignty isn't quite dead: it's sleeping, waiting for a wake-up call if English Canada ever tries to encroach again on the province's rights and identity.

John Parisella is well aware of this. The veteran federalist now sits on the 18th floor of 1 Place Ville Marie, the 47-storey skyscraper that towers over the underground city, the subterranean shopping complex where Montrealers shelter from their harsh winters. He used to be in another bunker, the war room of the 1995 referendum, a key aide to its leader, former premier Daniel Johnson. In fact, in government Mr Parisella served as chief of staff to both Johnson and his predecessor as premier, Robert Bourassa.

"My feeling is that independence does not feel as necessary as it used to," he said. "There is a lot of talk that sovereignty was a generational battle that is about to die out. I do think young Quebecers are elsewhere.

"But if there ever is a sense of injustice, then the whole notion of independence becomes like an insurance policy for a democratic alternative. The idea is not going to die in the sense it will no longer be espoused by anyone.

"The future of Quebec or separatism will likely depend more on whether Quebec feels it has to leave the Canadian federation for its survival and growth, rather than due to the grievances of the past."

His message: independence for the province would be made in the Rest of Canada, or ROC, not Quebec. If Ottawa and the other provinces don't get in the French-majority nation's way, it will still be in the federation.

Debate has been robust in Quebec - and in the rest of Canada. It could be so again.

Gagnon talks of the "backlash" in Anglophone western Canada, the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, where many people have never even met a Francophone.

"A lot of animosity and frustration was expressed over the three years following the last referendum, rather than empathy and solidarity and an effort to build bridges. A lot English Canada turned a cold shoulder to Quebec," he says.

The gripe: Quebec, like the nearby maritime provinces, gets what the Canadian authorities call "equalisation" funds from the oil-and-resource-rich Anglophone west. Resentment of this, combined with separatism, can be bitter. Think of the "subsidy-junkie" rhetoric from some English tabloids about Scotland.

Parisella has been in bruising debates, too, although he remains on good terms with both sides.

"Words can hurt and leave their mark," the bilingual Montrealer says, asked about the divisiveness of the debate. "But we're not counting casualties on the battlefield.

"I do expect the rhetoric to heat up in Scotland. I know it has begun already but it is going to get hotter. But it is important that we know there is a life after the referendum.

"The idea of being pro-Canada versus Pro-Quebec may be outdated today. To say I'm a federalist and you are separatist worked well in my generation and perhaps late as the 1990s. But not now.

"I think young people can describe themselves as in favour of sovereignty and not fight for it because it is not as central to their identity and their situation. It's not an end in itself anymore.

"My generation was more polarised, more set up in camps because we were faced with a decision. In the UK you are being faced with a decision too. So you are going to be part of Better Together or you want to stand alone. Right now we have no referendum. So pequistes and federalist can agree to disagree and move to the environment or the economy."

Dennis Dawson is a federalist senator in Ottawa. Another bilingual Quebecer - he's from the usually staunchly Francophone Quebec City three hours east of Montreal - he knows the kind of mistakes Canada's unionists need to make to provoke independentism. But he feels that even the thought of another vote fills his compatriots with dread.

An MP in 1980 and a No camp organiser in 95, Dawson reckons that a vote on independence is scarier than independence itself.

"It split families, it split companies, it split organisations. It was very destructive," he says of the decades-long debate. "There was an expression used by Mr Bourassa during the 1980 referendum: 'There is nothing,' he would say, 'more nervous than $1m.' Investors don't like instability. It's not that they don't necessarily like sovereignty.

"The debate was more important than the result could have been. You have seen the numbers of people who moved out to Toronto when the PQ won the election in 1976 and just talked about a vote.

"Take the more recent elections. It was not about sovereignty. People did not want a referendum,they did not feel the need to debate the issue. The PQ paid dearly. "Clearly, there is a whole generational gap between those who were sovereigntists in 1960s and 1970s who had a frustration vis-a-vis les anglais - they felt they were being oppressed by their English bosses.

"Well, the reality is their bosses are now Francophone and they still feel oppressed. But Quebecers are now masters of their own destiny."

Mr Dawson knows words can hurt. He has, he says, cautioned friends from Better Together about their language over a glass of wine in Ottawa. "I told them: 'Don't undermine Scotland'.

"Scotland could be independent as much as the other 180 countries in the UN. But does it need to be? Nobody can prove an indy Scotland would be more prosperous. Nobody can prove it would be in economic turmoil. But people like the status quo. If if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Bernard Drainville shouldn't really agree with anything Mr Dawson says. He's a PQ frontbencher, a minister until April's defeat. But, over some poutine, a plate of chips drizzled in gravy and curds, he admits Mr Dawson may have a point.

"The primary reason we lost was the fear of having a third referendum," he says, washing down his traditional dinner with some Lagavulin. "In the next campaign we will have to be able to answer the question. There cannot be any more ambiguity about this issue of having a referendum or not.

"The fact of the matter is that a majority of Quebecers do not want independence right now. So, therefore, a majority of Quebecers do not want a referendum right now. To be frank, we have a lot of work to do.

"Some of these who are opposed are the same who voted yes in 95 and they are no longer convinced. But the younger generation, they don't believe in these kind of arguments any more.

"It used to be enough to portray the federal government as the big bad guy. Not any more, especially for young people. It is as if they live in a world where there are no bad guys and everyone loves each other and where we are all one big planet, one big loving humanity.

"We are going to have to give them some very positive reasons to vote for independence. Just trying to portray the rest of Canada as the dominating domineering 'other' no longer works.

"We have to work on a positive rationale."

Mr Drainville is talking about what he sees as the advantage of a smaller or medium-sized nation state, one that can have influence in the world in its own right.

This is a man who has experienced two defeats. After the first he tried to embrace Anglophone north America. "I decided to give Canada a chance," he says. "I moved to Ontario and learned English."

Then came the failure of the federalist project for more power, for more devolution for Quebec. The so-called Lake Meech and Charlottetown deals fell through.

Disillusioned with federalism Mr Drainville, a former journalist following Scotland with interest, turned back to sovereigntism. He took the second defeat in 1995 harder.

"If you lose, you lose," he says of the vote. "It doesn't'matter how close it is." And there is a price, he adds, one he fears Scotland may face too.

"I think we might have lost some bargaining power with the rest of Canada," Mr Drainville says. "That defeat convinced a lot of Quebecers that independence was never going to happen.

"Not only did we punish ourselves by saying no to this great idea of founding our own country, we weakened ourselves by making the future threat of a referendum less credible.

"If you lose not only once, but twice, it means your adversaries will take you less seriously."

This is the other Quebec scenario for Scotland, the idea that with the threat of independence gone after a No vote there will be little incentive for the central government in London to give a better deal on anything from how state spending is divvied up to new powers.

Another PQ veteran, constitutional lawyer Daniel Turp doesn't quite buy that: the threat remains.

"We have heard the same thing again and again," he said. "After 1980, they said separatism was dead. After 95, they said separatism is dead. Now, after the last elections, separatism is dead. But it will revive. Do you know why? Because Quebecers will continue to leave this option open as long as Canada cannot deal with their claim for more autonomy, more devolution you would say in Scotland. I am an optimist. We'll win one day."