American indifference to Canada and Quebec, and ignorance of their affairs, is remarkable in international circles because of the undeniable reality of the substantial interests at stake. The Oct. 30 referendum, in which a near-majority of Quebeckers - including 60 percent of the French-speaking population and 80 of 125 electoral districts - supported secession from Canada, indicated that the time has come to take Canada seriously.
Unless Americans move quickly to give Canada priority attention, and to see clearly the details of what is happening, we may end up missing some important opportunities, or even inadvertently harming both American and Canadian interests.
In earlier centuries, when Canada formed part of the French Empire, and later the British Empire, Canada was considered to be of great material and strategic significance. In the American Declaration of Independence, the Canadian constitution of that day - the Quebec Act of 1774, guaranteeing the Quebecois their French linguistic and cultural heritage - was specifically denounced as one of the ''coercive acts'' that justified the American break with Britain. The War of 1812 was a war over Canada. And in the 1840s the United States went to the brink of war over the issue of the annexation of British Columbia: ''Fifty-four forty or fight!'' went the memorable phrase.
Yet by the end of the 19th century, and continuing pretty much to the present, Canada has receded from the consciousness of the American public, the opinion-making elite, and the community of policymakers and private citizens concerned with foreign affairs. A century and a half ago, Bostonian Francis Parkman, the greatest of American historians and a student of Quebec, wrote that ''the French dominion is a memory of the past.'' More prosaically, in the 1920s the gangster Al Capone, accused of illegally bootlegging liquor from Canada during Prohibition, told a Chicago grand jury, ''I don't even know what street Canada's on.''
This pose of dismissiveness, reflecting benign condescension toward ''the other'' in North America - the loyalist, the law-abiding, the deferential, the polite; the statist, the bilingual and bicultural - became a kind of harmless chauvinist indulgence during the cold-war years, when Canada could safely be neglected because of America's global preoccupations and dangerous foreign hot spots.
In recent times, the journalists, policymakers, and academics who mattered made their careers by focusing on countries other than Canada, and American public opinion followed suit. Though the US and Canada share the world's largest trading and investing relationship, American businesspeople have tended to assume that this is nothing but the product of pure market forces, and is largely on ''automatic pilot.''
''Canada is not an issue any more than Ohio is an issue. The level of concern is and remains very low,'' said Steven Blank, director of Canadian affairs at the Americas Society in New York, just a few months ago. And on the eve of the Oct. 30 referendum, a prominent Boston economics writer said privately, ''Canada is about the farthest thing from my mind.''
The future of Canada is now deeply problematic: A protracted constitutional crisis, a radically decentralized confederation, an independent French-speaking republic on the St. Lawrence, and an imploding nation-state are all possibilities. The US can no longer afford to take Canada for granted. We will need an informed public, and a coherent and consistent policy, to creatively deal with the challenges that lie ahead.
First, the business and professional community needs to appreciate that the future of American trade and investment in Canada is tied to and contingent upon political and constitutional developments. Canada is by far our largest trading partner, taking nearly 40 percent of US exports; and it is a major focus of American direct and portfolio investment, much of it managed by institutional investors in Boston.
Canada is critically dependent on these relationships, sending 80 percent of its exports to the US and financing 40 percent of its huge public debt from foreign bondholders. Any threatened disruption here - problems with NAFTA, new trade barriers, or a default on government bonds - would greatly aggravate the domestic crisis in Canada and Canadian-American relations. Though this may be news to most Americans, the recent Quebec referendum campaign featured extensive debate on American trade and investment, with both sides warning of possible future upheaval. The American business community needs to tune in to this discussion.
By the same token, Americans knowledgeable about the intricate interplay between politics and business in Canada may find many hidden opportunities. A prominent Canada watcher at Salomon Brothers in New York spent referendum night buying Quebec bonds. ''Some people thought I was crazy,'' he says, ''but it was a very profitable evening if you knew what you were doing.''
The case for a serious and responsible approach to Canada obviously applies to official policy as well. In view of our economic interests, Washington may find it difficult to resist taking advantage of Canada's trade vulnerabilities at a time of political weakness. Moreover, it may well be tempted to float the idea of statehood for British Columbia and Alberta, as the US seriously contemplated doing during the last separatism crisis, in the 1970s.
But the path of enlightened self-interest calls for strict noninterference in Canadian affairs, codified perhaps in a policy statement disclaiming interest in predatory trade policies and in territorial acquisition. The arts of government are highly developed in Canada, but the current situation is unprecedented and extremely fragile.
THERE is also an urgent need for the intellectual community to make Canada a priority. The worlds of journalism, publishing, and higher education have done a poor job, historically, of educating American opinion on Canada and Quebec. In an authoritative recent study of American relations with Canda, University of Toronto Professor Robert Bothwell pointedly notes that ''little of the material that follows is American in origin.'' It is pointless to hope for an enlightened policy toward Canada absent knowledgeable and vigilant public opinion to undergird and sustain it.
John English, a leading member of the Canadian Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade and a Harvard-trained historian, comments: ''Despite the integration of Canadian-American economic relations, and the enormous flow of people across the border, Canada is not well understood in your country. So Americans are tempted to draw quick and erroneous conclusions which are not borne out in the longer term.''
There is no longer any excuse for the traditional American indifference toward our northern neighbor.