To Save Canada

IT is increasingly apparent that the recent razor-thin victory of federalists in the Quebec independence referendum has done little to settle the question of Canada's future.

The challenge for Canada is whether it can overcome the contradiction built into the confederation from the beginning.

The United States began with a similar contradiction: slavery in the Southern states. From the time of the constitutional convention in 1787 until the Civil War broke out in 1860, Americans tried everything under the sun to balance the interests of the "slave" states and the "free" states. Finally the South decided the only way to survive was to separate. Abraham Lincoln, to whom the Union was everything, met force with force.

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The Canadian contradiction is cultural and linguistic. It, too, dates back to the beginning of European settlement in North America. Although Britain and France have been staunch allies during this century, it is easy to forget that for the previous 900 years they were bitter rivals. Even today there are aftertastes of that rivalry between the English-speaking countries (the US included) and France. Or, sadly, between many English- and French-speaking Canadians.

Historic guarantees

When the British and American colonists drove France from its North American empire in 1763, the French language and culture, including the Roman Catholic Church, remained firmly in place. In 1774, the British Parliament guaranteed Quebec that its language, culture, and religion would be recognized and respected.

This special recognition was preserved in the British North America Act of 1867, organizing the current Canadian confederation. But from Quebec's point of view, it was abrogated by the "repatriation" of Canada's constitution in 1982, when Quebec became simply a province like all the others. Thus in Quebeckers' view, their status was unilaterally changed from that of a "founding people," to one French province versus nine mostly English ones.

Every attempt to reinsert a constitutional guarantee for Quebec's efforts to protect its language and culture has failed, usually because of opposition from Western provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia, which complained it gave Quebec too many special privileges. To Quebeckers, of course, that was the point.

Last week Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien unveiled new proposals meant to mollify Quebec and keep it in the confederation. He would grant provinces a veto over constitutional changes, return labor-training responsibilities to the provinces, and recognize Quebec as a "distinct" society.

While the proposals aren't perfect, the response on both sides was sadly predictable. Quebec separatists, who have no interest in trying to work things out with Ottawa, said they didn't go far enough. British Columbia, Alberta, and the Western-based federal Reform Party immediately objected to special privileges for Quebec.

Many believe that time is running out for Canada and that Ottawa is floundering. Lucien Bouchard, the leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the federal Parliament, and the man who many feel single-handedly resurrected the flagging separatist campaign during the recent referendum, will return to Quebec City to take over the provincial separatist Parti Quebecois government in January. He gives every indication of keeping the issue on the front burner.

Threat from the West

Another threat to Canada comes from the very Western provinces that want no compromise with Quebec. For years they have complained - with reason - about inadequate representation in Ottawa. As the West continues to cement natural economic links with the US, and as immigration continues to change the country, a separatist undercurrent there could strengthen - especially if Quebec leaves.

A united Canada is in the best interests of Canadians and their neighbors to the south. Quebeckers' desire to preserve French deserves respect, but legal structures will stretch only so far. History has shown time and again that a language and a culture live on only in the hearts (and mouths) of a people. Quebeckers, whether of old stock or new immigrants, regardless of government, must want to speak French. Detachment from Canada will not change the fact that Quebec is surrounded by more than 270 million anglophones. Nor will a legalized "linguistic cleansing."

The real economic costs of separatism must also be counted. A healthy economy on a par with the rest of North America is a must if Quebec is to hold on to its population and prevent a drain on its francophone business and intellectual elites.

Switzerland has for centuries shown that a multilingual confederation can survive and its component parts flourish. Canadians of every stripe might profit from giving new - and urgent - attention to just how the Swiss manage it.

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