CANADIANS have lost their will to live together as one people. The old Canada - a federal state with a deserved reputation for stability, moderation, tolerance, and dullness - is dying. Unable to reconcile the divergent dreams of French-speaking Quebeckers and the English-speaking majority, the Canadian political system has lost the confidence of its citizens.
It may be that a new Canada will emerge, united in a different fashion. But today that hope seems remote. In the past, English- and French-speaking Canadians argued about how to live together. Now the debate is how best to live apart.
Language differences and regional rivalries have triumphed over Canada's sense of national purpose. Perhaps because we live such a comfortable, coddled life at the edge of the American economic and military empire, we have come to the bizarre conclusion that our acts of political self-mutilation have no consequences.
The inability to bridge the divide between language groups and regions has bedeviled Canada for decades. And the frequency and severity of our political crises have been increasing since the 1960s. What distinguishes today's troubles from times past is that most Canadians have lost patience and look forward to divorce.
At the least, Canada seems destined to become one-and-a-half countries. The challenge for Canadians - failing a reconciliation - is to reach an arrangement that is politically stable, economically viable, and satisfying enough to prevent bitter negotiations. It won't be easy.
Beneath the placid surface of wordy constitutional proposals and counter offers lurks a profound sense of hurt, even betrayal. French-speaking Quebeckers feel that English Canadians haven't given them the political tools they need to keep their language and culture alive. They say they are being driven out of Canada by mean-spirited English Canadians.
After failing to receive approval for a modest increase in provincial powers, Quebec has returned to the bargaining table demanding a radical restructuring of Canada by the end of 1992. If the federal government and the nine other provinces don't agree, Quebec threatens to hold a referendum on separation. Pollsters say the majority of Quebeckers today would vote to leave Canada. English Canadians say Quebec's latest proposals involving a massive transfer of power from the federal government to the province would gut the central authority and create a country too diffuse and disconnected to survive. Many English Canadians, perhaps most, won't just blame Quebeckers for the failure of their nation, they will want to punish them for it. And there will be plenty of opportunity for recriminations during the divorce proceedings. Negotiations over who gets saddled with the national debt and who obtains national assets - including immovables like the St. Lawrence Seaway - will be poisonous.
Nor will most English Canadians want the nation's leader, Prime Minister Mulroney, to speak for them. The Prime Minister is not trusted because he is a Quebecker and the leader of the most unpopular government in the country's history. Graffiti in Toronto read: ``Thirteen percent of Canadians approve of Mulroney's leadership. Fourteen percent think Elvis Presley is still alive.'' While Mr. Mulroney is more a victim of the failure of Canadian politics than the cause, he is a symbol of Canada's inability to heal itself.
The US has a stake in the outcome, and influence over how the arrangement is reached. Canada is America's biggest trading partner, just as the US is Canada's most important customer. Our nations enjoy a comprehensive free trade arrangement that covers virtually all products. Quebec will be anxious to maintain the same trade terms with the rest of Canada and the US. Quebeckers can afford independence, but they will not want to bear the cost of isolation.
Even if the breakup of Canada is amicably achieved, it will create new potential for instability. There is no guarantee that the break will be neat and clean. The Western provinces may decide to go it alone - or join the US. Ontario might strike its own deal with Quebec and turn a cold shoulder to the smaller, weaker provinces. Almost certainly the anti-Americanism that has always existed in English Canada - as an expression of English Canadians' fears that they are no different at all from their southern neighbors - will grow in a less secure and less diverse land.
So far, the debate about the future of Canada has been conducted with gentility, if not generosity. But as Quebec's deadline and the breakup of Canada draw nearer, the debate will grow more passionate, more agonized, more unpredictable.