NEWS of Quebec's potential ''secession'' from Canada took the US by storm. Many American commentators were puzzled by the driving forces behind Quebeckers' desire to alter their ties with Canada.
Yet, there was nothing sudden or mysterious about the process that led to the referendum. For the last 40 years, there have been two competing nation-building processes at work in Canada. In English Canada, the federal government expended energy developing a Canadian identity to replace the old one that was tied to the British Empire, and to set itself apart from the United States.
In the process, Canadians have built an impressive set of symbols and programs. Today, Canada presents itself as a multicultural nation in which Quebec stands as one province among others.
Meanwhile, a parallel dynamic took place in Quebec. Disappointed by the failure of the ''Canadian dream'' of a bicultural country from coast to coast (French language institutes were not officially supported in most provinces), French Canadians saw their best hope of survival resting with the development of a state and institutions for Quebec. In the process, Quebeckers have built institutions and practices that are unique to North America; the difference goes beyond language. Far from being ''provincial,'' Quebec's distinctiveness has made it the strongest proponent of free trade in Canada.
Inevitably, these two different nation-building processes clashed as the federal government gradually encroached upon areas that the founding act of Canada deemed to be of provincial jurisdiction, such as health, education, welfare, and natural resources.
For Quebec, the invasion of these key domains by the federal government was a breach of the original understanding of how Canada was organized. Thus ensued endless constitutional talks to try to accommodate Quebec's desire for greater autonomy and cultural recognition.
In the midst of the first referendum on Quebec's sovereignty, in 1980, then-Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliot-Trudeau promised that a ''no'' vote would mean a new, decentralized Canadian federation. Quebeckers took him at his word. The federal government and nine provinces then proceeded to change the Constitution in a manner not only diametrically opposed to the spirit of the 1980 pledge, but in a way that went against the will of a majority of Quebeckers. At the National Assembly in Quebec City, all parties called on the rest of the country not to proceed, but in vain.
Since 1982, Quebeckers have been living under a constitutional order they have never endorsed, and with which a majority still disagrees. The Constitution denies them what they always took as a given - that they constitute a distinct nation, one that deserves legal recognition.
The Meech Lake Accord (1987) and Charlottetown Agreement (1992) were two failed attempts to bring Quebec back in the Canadian fold. Yet each round of constitutional talks seemed to compound the initial problem. Until the past few weeks, a majority of Canadians were in no mood to accommodate even the most minimal of Quebeckers' grievances. Prime Minister Jean Chretien's staunch refusal to commit his government to any reform of the Canadian federation, even down to the last nail-biting days of the campaign, was reflective of this prevailing mood.
Something to think about
The victory of the ''no'' campaign by a meager 50,000-vote margin on a total of nearly 5 million votes will give Mr. Chretien and the rest of Canada something to think about. No longer can Quebec's desire for recognition and autonomy be ignored. Quebec will not agree to remain a mere province of another nation. Canadians have to accept this. Their country's second lease on life depends on it.