AT first they snickered. But after two years of struggling to convince Canadians that they need a "Plan B" - just in case Quebec secedes from Canada - Lorne Caughill says people now are listening.
What the retired high school principal from Kitchener, Ontario, is pushing with his grass-roots "Canada First" group is a fall-back plan for an English-speaking country of nine provinces - sans Quebec.
Quebec separatists are known to have their own detailed plans on how to approach talks with Canada over borders, pensions, maritime boundaries, use of the Canadian dollar, and trade relations, to name a few points that would have to be negotiated.
Mr. Caughill says Canada needs a plan of its own to define its post-breakup priorities, from how much federal debt Quebec should assume to whether Quebeckers will turn in their Canadian passports.
Canada has no Plan B because "thinking the unthinkable," as many English-speakers call this national lifeboat drill, has been seen as defeatist and unpatriotic. In Canada's 30-year travail with Quebec separatism, secession always has seemed a remote possibility.
But Canadian attitudes may be changing. Five weeks ago a referendum on Quebec secession failed by less than 50,000 votes. Since then, signs are emerging that citizens in the nine provinces outside Quebec are reluctantly pondering a future without Quebec.
Many Canadians don't want to think about it, Caughill says, but now feel that they must.
Canada has had no plan for how to handle separation. Such thinking has been seen as defeatist and unpatriotic.
"I used to get the feeling people felt I was just rabble-rousing," he says. But since the narrow federalist win in the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum on secession "I haven't been getting the same negative response. People are asking me what they can do."
"There is a growing feeling we should be ready - that there should be ideas in place," says Donna Dasko, vice president of Environics Research Group, a Toronto-based polling firm that has done national surveys since the referendum. "Before, there was a sense that, if you came up with such a plan, you were betraying Canada. That argument doesn't work anymore."
Tuned into this low-level rumble is the western-based Reform Party led by Preston Manning. Last week Reform Party officials issued a list of "20 Realities of Secession" that spells out the tough terms the party proposes that Canada adopt should Quebec secede.
One of the benefits of a public Plan B, Mr. Manning and his fellow Reform Party members in Parliament argue, is that it may put to rest some illusions that Quebeckers might have drawn from separatist leaders.
One example: Before the Oct. 30 referendum vote, three-quarters of Canadians outside Quebec opposed the continued use of Canadian passports by Quebeckers after secession. Yet 70 percent of Quebeckers thought that their continued use of a Canadian passport would be a workable idea.
If Quebec leaves, the proposal outlined by the Reform Party would have Canada deem Canadian citizenship incompatible with Quebec citizenship, require Quebeckers to surrender their Canadian passports, and "insist" that Quebec assume 25 percent of the federal debt.
It would also remake Quebec's borders if native groups, such as the Cree Indians of northern Quebec, vote to stay in Canada.
Stephen Harper, a Reform spokesman, says the party's plan will help Canadians think about their future and put Quebeckers on notice that rosy scenarios such as an economic and political union between Canada and an independent Quebec are nonstarters. Instead, he and others say, Quebeckers can expect hard-nosed self-interest by Canada's remaining provinces.
The Reform Party and Caughill's grass-roots group are hardly alone now in designing an alternative plan. Authors, academics, newspaper columnists, and think tanks like the C.D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute are all working on "what if" scenarios of their own.
"More and more people now believe we have to discuss this because it is an undeniable fact that this country is in a time of very great danger," says Gordon Gibson, the Vancouver, B.C.-based author of "Plan B," a book on what Canada should do if Quebec secedes.
Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien is not one of those. He and his deputies have chided Manning and the Reform Party for demanding an outline from the federal government of proposals it would initiate if Quebec secedes. After all, the prime minister likes to point out, "We won the referendum."
Mr. Chretien has responded to the Quebec secession threat with a conciliatory "unity" plan that has been dismissed by separatists and western Canadians alike. Still, many others agree with the prime minister that having the government delineate a Plan B, for whatever reasons, is not a good idea.
"I don't think many people in authority can afford to be seen to be doing this," says Michael Bliss, a Canadian historian at the University of Toronto.
"Suppose you have a headline in your newspaper, 'Canada Preparing for Separation,' " he says. "It creates a sense [that] separation [is] on its way. [That] would be particularly demoralizing to the federalist forces inside Quebec."
Rosemary Speirs, a columnist for the Toronto Star, also warns that dictating to Quebec could play into separatist hands.
"[Separatist leader Lucien] Bouchard, of course, wants to make Quebec's sovereignty appear inevitable, and that's the strategic problem for those who advocate drawing up a federal game plan," she writes.
But Jeff Rose, a former Ontario government minister and the author of a new treatise advocating a Plan B approach, told the Monitor that the risk that such a plan would play into Bouchard's hands is a necessary one.
"Until recently no one thought the eventuality we are now discussing was anything more than science fiction," Mr. Rose says. "Even though this sort of strategic planning is definitely capable of being distorted by the separatists in the short run ... that may be the price we have to pay."
In the long run, "It could have a profound effect on the thinking of Quebeckers in the next referendum," he says.
"Plan B" author Gibson agrees.
"Nobody wants Quebec to go," he says. "But the chances of Canada being together in its current shape two years from now are less than 50-50. The separatists have moved the ball to the one yard line and still have control of the ball. It would be madness not to do this planning."
'We'd still like Quebec to stay'
Caughill says his Canada First group now numbers 500 supporters and is growing. He recalls that before the first secession referendum in Quebec in 1980, he was part of a group that tried desperately to keep Quebec in Canada.
"We went to national meetings working very hard to try to placate Quebec," he says. "But it looks now like the demands are insatiable. We'd still like Quebec to stay in Canada - but not at any price."