Why Canada Probably Won't Fall Apart

Despite Quebec elections, separatist forces are weaker than they seem

ON Sept. 12 the Parti Qucois (PQ), a party dedicated to dismembering Canada, won a smashing victory in Quebec's provincial election. Federalist forces surveyed the electoral damage, breathed a sigh of relief, and began to toast their own success.

On Sept. 13 savvy traders on international money markets were so impressed by the election result that they gave the Canadian dollar the best one-day ride against other currencies it's had in years.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

Nothing. This is Canada, home of counterintuitive politics, where things are not quite what they seem.

Agitation for political independence in Quebec has been the norm since the 1960s' great push to modernization. As French-speaking Quebeckers altered the domination of the English-Canadian business class and the Roman Catholic Church, the dream of separation gripped the intelligentsia and the young.

In 1976, Rene Levesque and his separatist PQ took power and tried to lead the province out of Canada. After years of agonizing debate, Quebeckers rejected separation by a 60-to-40 margin in a 1980 referendum. Still, Quebeckers liked Premier Levesque's honest government and reelected the PQ in 1981. The 1980 referendum had dampened enthusiasm for independence; but it did not kill the spirit of dissent in Quebec.

The stakes of unity

When attempts by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1992 to change Canada's constitution in Quebec's favor failed, separatist sentiment exploded. In 1980, Canadians met Quebeckers' plea for autonomy with sympathy, and their demands for independence with anxiety and sadness.

Today many Canadians, especially Westerners, think Quebeckers should either stop demanding special privileges - or leave. More English Canadians are saying the national preoccupation with Quebec is stunting Canada's economic growth and political evolution.

Canadian unity stakes rose again in the federal election of 1993. Quebeckers sent a majority of separatist representatives to the federal Parliament in Ottowa. Only a handful of Liberals - including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien - survived this separatist onslaught. The Bloc Qucois (BQ), led by the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, sits in Ottowa's House of Commons with the express purpose of tearing the country apart. Last week's vote was supposed to produce a second great shock wave to batter Canada's foundations. The finishing blow, according to the separatists' calendar, was planned for eight to 12 months from now, when PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau and BQ leader Mr. Bouchard together were to convince more than 50 percent of Quebeckers to vote for independence in a referendum.

But the separatist scenario has gone slightly awry. The vote count between the PQ and the Liberals ended in a virtual dead heat, with the PQ receiving 43.7 percent and the Liberals 43.3 percent. Only 15,000 votes separated the two, out of 3 million ballots cast. Liberals won the Montreal areas with large English and immigrant populations; the PQ had support among French-speakers everywhere. But the numbers indicate now that in a referendum on separation, Quebeckers would vote convincingly to stay in Canada.

Quebec voters want change, but not independence. As in 1981, when they reelected the PQ after turning down separation, they want government in Canada even though their favored party wants to lead them out.

Pluses and minuses

Support for separation may be less than the 40 percent polled in 1980. Premier-elect Parizeau and Bouchard would have to increase public enthusiasm for independence to more than 50 percent, not easy even if Quebec Liberals had been smashed last week.

Does this mean Canada will again dodge the bullet of disunity?

Probably, but not certainly.

On the plus side, separation doesn't have the cachet it had in the 1970s and '80s. Young Quebeckers don't face the same cultural barriers to economic success that their parents did. They see business and entrepreneurship, rather than government and bureaucracy, as the best way to improve their lives and change their society. Building a whole new level of government - and inventing new reasons for taxation - is unappealing.

On the minus side, English Canada is recession-battered and grumpy. There may be more advocates of Quebec separation in Western Canada than there are in ``la belle province'' right now.

Parizeau and Bouchard have vowed to exploit the frailties of Canadian federalism to show Quebeckers why they must opt for separation. Missteps by English Canadian politicians, business leaders, and intellectuals could polarize debate and make separation more likely.

What's the best strategy for Prime Minister Chretien and his government? A vicious attack on Premier Parizeau? A reasoned rebuttal of separatist rhetoric? An emotional plea for national unity?

None of the above. The most decisive thing Chretien can do is nothing. Absolutely nothing. The forces of division are weaker than they look. If Chretien rises above the fray and focuses on the welfare of all Canadians, this crisis may fade. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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