THIS is a year that promises once again to test the limits of Canadians' tolerance for one another.
So say the pundits and prognosticators out in force now, many of them hoping that the bleakness of their forecasts will be long forgotten 12 months hence.
But when widely respected former Prime Minister Joe Clark, shares his concerns, they carry weight.
In a recent television interview he said that 1994 will be a ``make or break year'' for Canada. He worried publicly that the federal regional parties elected to Parliament in October - the separatist Bloc Qucois (BQ) led by Lucien Bouchard and the western-based Reform Party led by Preston Manning - may further split the country by feuding over federal funds and other issues.
``I think this is a critical year,'' Mr. Clark told the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on Sunday.
Specifically, Clark worries that parliamentary squabbling between the English-speaking and French-speaking federal representatives will foment emotions back in Quebec just in time for an important election there this fall.
He envisions a situation where the BQ plies Prime Minister Jean Chretien's cash-strapped government for federal funds while the Reform Party criticizes Quebec for asking too much.
THE Parti Qucois (PQ), the provincial separatist party, is leading in polls. It has promised that once elected, it will hold a province-wide referendum within a year on whether Quebec should split with Canada.
While there is precious little public appetite for further wrangling over Quebec's place in (or out) of Canada, it will be an impossible subject to avoid this year, says Desmond Morton, a University of Toronto historian.
``I think we're closer to the breakup [of Canada] than we were three or five years ago,'' Mr. Morton says, citing the failures of the 1990 Meech Lake Accord and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord. Both were compromises to accommodate Quebec's demand to be recognized as distinct among the 10 provinces.
Morton, who has studied the American secession of the South, sees some parallels in present-day Canada.
``It's true that in central Canada many think that the notion of Quebec's secession is a big fraud,'' he says. ``But it's also true that prior to [the first Civil War battle at] Fort Sumter, no one in the United States thought the South would secede either.''
Many, however, are untroubled by the prospect of the separatist PQ taking over in Quebec.
``I'm a lot less alarmist about Quebec than a lot of people,'' says Stephen Clarkson, a political economist. ``In Canada `that sucking sound' is the federal system sucking separatist politicians into the mainstream.''
Stephen Scott, a law professor at McGill University in Montreal says a separatist victory in the fall ``is not open and shut.'' He cites polls showing a majority in Quebec do not want separation.
Still, he says, an election of the PQ would mean that ``they can use the considerable resources of the party in power.... All in all, though, things are not at a critical stage - yet.''