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Will Americans Finally Train Lenses on Canada?

After Quebec's near-secession, US businesses, intellectuals, and policymakers can't carry on the tradition of nonchalance

By James Reed. James Reed is editor and publisher of Canada Watcha subscription newsletter, and a research associate at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass. / December 15, 1995



American indifference to Canada and Quebec, and ignorance of their affairs, is remarkable in international circles because of the undeniable reality of the substantial interests at stake. The Oct. 30 referendum, in which a near-majority of Quebeckers - including 60 percent of the French-speaking population and 80 of 125 electoral districts - supported secession from Canada, indicated that the time has come to take Canada seriously.

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Unless Americans move quickly to give Canada priority attention, and to see clearly the details of what is happening, we may end up missing some important opportunities, or even inadvertently harming both American and Canadian interests.

In earlier centuries, when Canada formed part of the French Empire, and later the British Empire, Canada was considered to be of great material and strategic significance. In the American Declaration of Independence, the Canadian constitution of that day - the Quebec Act of 1774, guaranteeing the Quebecois their French linguistic and cultural heritage - was specifically denounced as one of the ''coercive acts'' that justified the American break with Britain. The War of 1812 was a war over Canada. And in the 1840s the United States went to the brink of war over the issue of the annexation of British Columbia: ''Fifty-four forty or fight!'' went the memorable phrase.

Yet by the end of the 19th century, and continuing pretty much to the present, Canada has receded from the consciousness of the American public, the opinion-making elite, and the community of policymakers and private citizens concerned with foreign affairs. A century and a half ago, Bostonian Francis Parkman, the greatest of American historians and a student of Quebec, wrote that ''the French dominion is a memory of the past.'' More prosaically, in the 1920s the gangster Al Capone, accused of illegally bootlegging liquor from Canada during Prohibition, told a Chicago grand jury, ''I don't even know what street Canada's on.''

This pose of dismissiveness, reflecting benign condescension toward ''the other'' in North America - the loyalist, the law-abiding, the deferential, the polite; the statist, the bilingual and bicultural - became a kind of harmless chauvinist indulgence during the cold-war years, when Canada could safely be neglected because of America's global preoccupations and dangerous foreign hot spots.

In recent times, the journalists, policymakers, and academics who mattered made their careers by focusing on countries other than Canada, and American public opinion followed suit. Though the US and Canada share the world's largest trading and investing relationship, American businesspeople have tended to assume that this is nothing but the product of pure market forces, and is largely on ''automatic pilot.''

''Canada is not an issue any more than Ohio is an issue. The level of concern is and remains very low,'' said Steven Blank, director of Canadian affairs at the Americas Society in New York, just a few months ago. And on the eve of the Oct. 30 referendum, a prominent Boston economics writer said privately, ''Canada is about the farthest thing from my mind.''

The future of Canada is now deeply problematic: A protracted constitutional crisis, a radically decentralized confederation, an independent French-speaking republic on the St. Lawrence, and an imploding nation-state are all possibilities. The US can no longer afford to take Canada for granted. We will need an informed public, and a coherent and consistent policy, to creatively deal with the challenges that lie ahead.