IN Canada's fight to keep Quebec from seceding, President Clinton's visit to icy Ottawa Feb. 23-24 is a symbol both federalists and separatists are using to bolster their causes.
The United States has long declared an official impartiality on Quebec's future. And Mr. Clinton is likely to keep that neutral stance during his visit.
This first summit between Clinton and Prime Minister Jean Chretien will focus on the historically close economic and political alliance between the two nations. Mr. Chretien and Clinton will hail a new ``Open Skies'' agreement expanding commercial air links.
Only in private are they expected to discuss trade disagreements such as Canada's ejection of the US-produced Country Music Television channel in favor of an upstart Canadian country-music channel.
Yet some observers say the most important aspect of the Clinton trip is neither trade relations nor treaties. It is the impact the visit could have on Canada's future if it marginally strengthens Chretien's hand in his fight to hold Canada together.
``It's definitely a boost for Canadian unity just having [Clinton] show up,'' says Bruce Campbell, an Ottawa political consultant. ``The mere fact an American president is coming up here to see the prime minister is a strong symbolic element - especially since it may be only months before an expected [independence] referendum in Quebec.''
Clinton will address a joint session of Parliament Feb. 23, the eighth time a US president has done so since World War II.
Although for most of his 18 months in office Chretien has kept Clinton at arms-length so as not to appear to be a toady, the prime minister plans a warm reception for him.
Recent polls show 60 percent of Quebeckers still question the notion of independence. The Chretien government would like to solidify that advantage by distilling Clinton's visit into a single message: A united Canada is a global player - and the top trading partner and ally of the US - while a Canada without Quebec would make both mere bit players in any ``new world order.''
Still, separatist politicians hope somehow to neutralize or even turn Clinton's visit into a lift for Quebec nationhood.
Clinton has agreed to meet Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Qucois, Quebec's separatist party, in the House of Commons. Distressed that Mr. Bouchard would have a prominent forum to trumpet his separatist cause, Chretien briefly considered blocking the meeting. But when it became clear that such a move would overshadow the visit, Chretien relented.
US Ambassador to Canada James Blanchard says Clinton will not get drawn into Canada's messy fight between Quebec separatists and Ottawa federalist forces led by Chretien.
``We're not interested in being part of a referendum campaign,'' Mr. Blanchard told the Canadian press last week. ``Our intention is to highlight the United States-Canada relationship, not political disagreement in Quebec.''
Some suggest, however, that beneath the veil of official neutrality there are manifold reasons for the US to want to support the continued unity of Canada - if it can do so discreetly.
One such reason: A ``yes'' vote for Quebec independence this year would be a powerful blow to the already-weak Canadian dollar and Canadian financial markets. With the Mexican-peso crisis still unresolved, the last thing the White House needs as the US presidential election season begins is a monetary-political crisis north as well as south, say Canadian observers.
``The big risk is that there could be an acrimonious split - and that would cause financial market chaos up here that could cause a severe recession,'' says Patrick Grady, president of Global Economics, an Ottawa economic consulting firm. ``It's never good for a country to have its major trading partner in that kind of situation.''