QUEBEC'S restless yearning to be a country unto itself is once again sending ripples across Canada's western provinces, where sympathy for such aspirations is at an all-time low.
With only months to go before a Quebec provincial election that many believe will be won by the separatist Parti Qucois, westerners have been wrestling with whether to speak their minds or silently watch a process many view as the dismantling of Canada. The dam of silence burst last week.
Western premiers, native groups, and Canada's minister of Indian affairs bluntly questioned whether a Quebec split from Canada would be amicable, as separatists have suggested, and whether natives in Quebec could remain part of Canada.
The first to speak was Michael Harcourt, the normally low-key premier of British Columbia. ``Frankly, the position I'm taking is that Quebec and B.C. [British Columbia] are natural allies in a renewed Canada and would be the best of friends,'' Mr. Harcourt told The Globe and Mail newspaper, speaking in unusually tough terms about Quebec separation.
``But if they decided to separate, we wouldn't be the best of friends; we'd be the worst of enemies. The anger that would be felt by British Columbians to the people of Quebec wanting to destroy this great country would be immense,'' he said.
The flash point for Mr. Harcourt was a trip to France by Lucien Bouchard, leader of Canada's official opposition party in Parliament. An ardent Quebec separatist, Mr. Bouchard met French President Francois Mitterrand in Paris, hoping to gain France's blessing on an Independent Quebec and a promise of official recognition.
While the meeting resulted in no overt commitment to recognize Quebec, Bouchard was scowled at for assuming a role as the international harbinger of Canada's breakup.
``The whole thing is really illogical, to have the leader of the opposition - Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, if that phrase means something still - being in other parts of the world talking about the breakup of the country,'' Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow told the Canadian Press May 17.
Late in the week, he called Bouchard and provincial separatist leader Jacques Parizeau ``master illusionists'' for deceiving Quebeckers into believing separation would be simple and relatively painless.
While Bouchard chided the premiers for their remarks via televised news reports from Paris, Parti Qucois leader Mr. Parizeau rode to Bouchard's defense, telling the premiers to cool down. ``A great deal of your ill will or hollering has absolutely no legal basis, so therefore, as premiers, keep your shirts on,'' Parizeau remarked in the Quebec legislature on May 17.
For most of the week, Mr. Romanow and Harcourt fumed in private with the other western premiers - Ralph Klein of Alberta and Gary Filmon of Manitoba - at a meeting north of Winnipeg.
The meeting was to focus on trade and regional cooperation, but Quebec and national unity stole much of the attention.
``Just how the premiers handle the Quebec question is important,'' says John Bumsted, a University of Manitoba political historian. ``They have to discuss to what degree they would act in concert if the unthinkable becomes thinkable.''
Western provinces, such as Manitoba, where native groups have large numbers and political clout, are closely watching how Canada deals with Cree Indians in Quebec's North, Mohawks in Quebec's South, and Algonquins in the middle, who say they want to remain part of Canada's federation regardless of which way Quebec goes. Parizeau says the current borders of Quebec would remain intact and that native land within those borders would become part of an independent nation of Quebec.
But Minister of Indian Affairs Ron Irwin reassured natives, telling them: ``I don't think Indians are chattels for the separatists to decide on. They've been here for 10,000 years. They are a part of Canada. If they want to stay in Canada, that's their choice.''