Canada is once again peering into the abyss. Quebec's premier, separatist Lucien Bouchard, has called elections for Nov. 30 and has announced that if his Parti Quebecois defeats the Liberal antisecession candidate, Jean Charest, he will call for a referendum on sovereignty if and when the polls show a pro-sovereignty majority. In the last referendum, in 1995, the separatists came within a point of winning.
The threat of Quebec's secession is a sword of Damocles over Canada, and the threat weighs heavily on the national psyche. The province of Quebec separates New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island from the rest of Canada. Should Quebec secede, Canada would look like East and West Pakistan did before East Pakistan became the sovereign Bangladesh. The Canadian federation could disintegrate.
One possibility: The economically depressed Atlantic provinces might seek to become a part of the United States (New Brunswick shares a border with Maine).
Few Americans appreciate how important our relationship with Canada is, in part because, as "children of a common mother" (the words on the Peace Arch at the British Columbia-Washington border), the relationship is generally tranquil, trusting, close, and constructive, occasional spats notwithstanding. Canada is by far our most important trading partner (averaging $1 billion daily), and we invest more in Canada than in any other country - more than in all of Latin America. We cannot take any threat to Canada's integrity lightly.
But the sword of Damocles may well be two-edged. The Quebec separatist leaders are telling Quebeckers relationships with the US will not skip a beat should the province become sovereign. They are almost surely wrong, as they are in their expectation of a harmonious post-secession partnership with Canada.
A rich and diverse connective fabric has been knit between Canada and the US since the end of the War of 1812. That fabric covers political, economic, military, intelligence, communications, labor, philanthropic, and many other kinds of relationships.
To assume that a new country of 7 million people - Canada's total population is about 30 million - will automatically continue those relationships is, it seems to me, both rash and potentially very costly.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is a case in point.
Several more populous Latin American countries, Chile in particular, have been waiting for years to negotiate entry into NAFTA. They are impatient with the failure of Congress to authorize fast-track negotiations.
Is it realistic for Quebec's separatists to assume that, on achieving sovereignty, Quebec would vault to the head of the line? If it doesn't, Quebec would be at a substantial competitive disadvantage that will be reflected in higher unemployment, slow growth, and a depreciating currency.
Similarly, the intimate military and intelligence relationships that Canada and the US have long enjoyed cannot easily be duplicated with a sovereign Quebec, particularly if, as expected, a special relationship develops between Quebec and France.
Common cultural values and a common language have played a key role in the evolution of the US-Canadian relationship. There is little sympathy among Americans for Quebec's secession.
Quebec appears to have been even more zealous than France in its efforts to downgrade the English language. Ironically, virtually all members of Quebec's highly-educated elite, including Premier Bouchard, are bilingual, and many of the non-elite speak English.
The anti-English policy notwithstanding, Quebec's bilingualism is an important resource for the province as part of Canada. It could be even more important for an independent Quebec.
The irony of Quebec's current language policy is all the greater in the light of the Canadian government's extraordinary efforts in recent decades to promote bilingualism. Call a Canadian government office and you will be greeted in both languages. Canada's efforts to accommodate Quebec's special cultural, linguistic, and psychological needs go well beyond the establishment of French as an official Canadian language.
The current federal prime minister, Jean Chretien, is from Quebec, as were his recent predecessors Brian Mulroney and Pierre Trudeau.
Forty years ago, Quebec was an underdeveloped province by contrast with English Canada. Many Quebeckers blamed their backwardness on their "exploitation" by anglophone Canadians, who were prominent in Quebec's financial, commercial, and industrial enterprises - much as Latin America used to blame its problems on "Yanqui imperialism."
But in the early 1960s, a group of young Quebeckers led by Premier Jean Lesage triggered a Quiet Revolution that has brought Quebec to parity with the rest of Canada.
The leaders of the Quiet Revolution are largely responsible for Quebec's transformation, but the federal government and Canadians as a whole deserve credit for their efforts both to promote prosperity in Quebec and to make Quebec feel a part of Canada.
The wrenching of Quebec from Canada would present monumental and anguishing legal, financial, and political problems, and the threat of prolonged friction and even violence.
That reality, coupled with the many uncertainties that surround a sovereign Quebec's relationships with the US - with potentially serious consequences for Quebec's economic well-being - should persuade the separatist leaders for the good of their own people to sheathe their two-edged sword of Damocles and pursue their goals within a united Canada.
* Lawrence Harrison is a senior fellow at the Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. His most recent book is 'The Pan-American Dream' (Basic Books, 1997).