Talk of the Towns: A Canadian Breakup and Recession

LETTER FROM CANADA

THE talk in Canada's two biggest cities is strikingly different. In Montreal, the chitchat centers on whether the Meech Lake Accord is going to be signed by a June deadline and whether failure to do so means Quebec would break off from Canada.

In Toronto, residents seem more concerned by the prospect of a recession and falling real estate prices. There are newspaper headlines about Meech Lake, but not much conversation. The usual response here seems to be, ``If Quebec wants to go, let it.''

The accord brings Quebec back into the Canadian constitutional fold. The other nine provinces signed a revised Canadian constitution in 1982. Quebec, then ruled by the separatist Parti Quebecois government, did not. The 1987 Meech Lake amendments, named after the Prime Minister's resort in the Gatineau hills north of Ottawa where this latest accord was signed, take into account some of Quebec's objections.

Now Manitoba and New Brunswick say they won't join other provinces in signing the accord. Newfoundland threatens to withdraw its approval. Some Quebec politicians and business people who were once 100 percent in favor of preserving unity now say ``No Meech, no deal.'' Canada is playing a dangerous game of chicken.

One night recently a banker from Toronto sat beside a professor from London, Ontario, at dinner. The professor said she was worried the country would break up. The banker said to let it go, ending with: ``We'll have a nice country from Ontario to British Columbia.''

This seems the dream of some rich Torontonians - to jettison history and all the poorer parts of Canada. Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia are the ``have'' provinces. From what they kick into the pot in taxes to the federal government in Ottawa come transfer payments to the ``have-nots'' - Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.

Earlier this month there was an extraordinary sight on Canadian television. The country's two top public affairs shows - The Journal in English, and Le Point in French - had a simultaneous broadcast, with the French translated into English and the English into French as it was spoken.

It was a classic debate, on the Meech Lake Accord, the sort of thing never seen on United States television, except at election time. It was difficult to say whether there was a winner or loser. But the anti-Accord side did have Sharon Carstairs from Manitoba. An ex-school teacher, and now leader of the Liberal party in Manitoba, she has a shrill, doctrinaire way of speaking. Manitoba has a history of being anti-French and suppressed its own large French-speaking minority in the last century. It is hard for French-speaking Quebeckers to handle a lecture from that quarter.

It would be difficult to gauge what impact that program would have in Toronto. Meech Lake was the headline in the Toronto Globe and Mail the next morning. There was even a story on a statement by Merrill Lynch, the large US brokerage firm, that it would be safe to invest in an independent Quebec. It pointed out Quebec would have an economy about the size of Belgium's.

But the main story on middle-class lips was about the collapse of the Toronto housing market. The same man who had shocked the professor at the banquet welcomed the news. He's in the market to buy.

Housing in Montreal costs about half what it does in Toronto. And really big houses are cheaper in Montreal; almost nothing goes for more than a million dollars while in Toronto a million doesn't buy much in fancy downtown areas.

Montreal is uptight. The place seems constantly on edge. The pressure of the language issue seeps into everyday life. Should you speak English or French to the next person? There are days when every encounter seems a subtle form of game-playing. The place is much more civil than it was 10 years ago. There is no outright rudeness by one language group to another, just passive hostility.

Toronto is smug. It seems a place obsessed with its own importance. It likes to call itself ``world class,'' an expression which smacks of the provincial. Toronto's new covered stadium is world class; Toronto is the business and financial capital of Canada.

If cities were people, Toronto would be the loud, obnoxious new rich kid; Montreal would be the artsy poorer cousin, down on his luck. They seem to care less and less whether they stay part of the same country or break up and go their separate ways.

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