Canada: More Marriage Counseling

TO prevent division, the United States suffered a civil war. No one in Canada is going to fight with guns to keep Quebec in the Canadian confederation. If Quebeckers were to vote for independence - and a recent poll shows 70 percent would do so if a referendum were held today - the people of the nine other provinces and two territories would merely wave goodbye. But probably most Canadians would be saddened to see their sea-to-sea, highly successful nation split.

Canada has been an example of a country with two major linguistic groups who, though they may quarrel, have not dealt with each other violently in modern times. Canada has made much progress with programs to assure the French-speaking minority of fair treatment in their dealings with the federal government.

All this effort seems to be going down the drain following the 1990 failure of two provinces to ratify the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which would have termed Quebec ``a distinct society.'' It proved to be a golden opportunity for Quebec separatists, capitalizing on the feelings of rejection and cultural separateness of the 5 million French-speaking Quebeckers.

Now a commission set up by the governing Liberal Party in Quebec has released its report. It proposes terms, conditions, and a timetable for constitutional negotiations that would profoundly reduce the influence and scope of the central government and vastly increase the powers and autonomy of the provinces. It is probably an opening position in another round of bargaining. But few Canadians are in a mood for such difficult negotiations.

Canadians, either French- or English-speaking, might well be wise to cool off, even if that takes some time. English Canadians need to show more patience, and perhaps even consider granting Quebec a separate division of federal-provincial powers, as long as it costs nothing. French Canadians should think again about the advantages of confederation.

The French culture in Quebec has more than survived within the protection of Canadian confederation; it has thrived. Would it do as well in a separate Quebec, dealing with a continent of 275 million English-speakers? A separate Quebec stands in danger of becoming an economic backwater.

National divorces, like personal ones, are usually messy. How would Canada divide the national debt? Would Quebec get northern Quebec with its thin population of English-speaking, Anglican Cree Indians sitting on massive hydropower resources? This area was granted to Quebec only in this century.

Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa has said he remains a federalist. But he has a reputation for tacking with the popular political winds. He should behave more like a tough captain, fighting to keep the province within confederation, taking the risk of going down with the ship should he be unable to turn Quebec public opinion away from the reef of separatism.

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