If 1990 was a bitter year for Canada, 1991 promises to be an ugly one. Canada's traditional lack of a strong national identity has come home to haunt the country with a vengeance.
For Quebecers, especially, provincial loyalty far outweighs any they may feel toward the country as a whole. Now they are feeling their provincial oats and are in a constant state of demand and threat. Much of the rest of the country is tired of the Quebec posture and is mumbling, "Go already." But having Quebec break from confederation is not a solution, but a source of worse problems.
Quebec has been one of the bright stars in the Canadian constellation. One of the original provinces when Canada united in 1867, it now has 6 million of Canada's 26 million people. Most, but not all, of its population is French-speaking just as most, but not all, French-speakers live in Quebec.
The Quebec issue should have been settled in 1763 when France ceded its territories in Canada and the American colonies to Britain. But it wasn't. It should have been over when English Canada belatedly recognized it was treating its francophone minority shabbily and, under Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, made far-reaching attempts to change the situation. But it wasn't. It should have been over 10 years ago when the separatist Parti Quebecois, then running Quebec, held a referendum and discovered that most Quebecers did not want separation. But it wasn't.
Instead there was the Meech Lake Accord, which ended up twisting a salted knife into a closing wound. The accord was an attempt by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to redefine the Canadian confederation. After a good start toward passage -- approval by the central government and all 10 provinces was needed -- things fell apart.
Part of the problem is the different way Quebec and the rest of Canada saw Meech Lake. Quebec saw it as a litmus test for the others, a chance to show that Quebec was appreciated and could maintain its distinct culture.
To many elsewhere, however, the accord was a commitment not to confirm Quebec's equality, but to make it superior. And the agreement was seen as a big step in decentralizing the country and in making future changes more difficult.
After Meech Lake's defeat, all the loud players were on one end of the field. No one of major prominence spoke up for a united Canada. In Ottawa, Mr. Mulroney was silent. The other two main parties were undergoing leadership changes and were silent. In Quebec, the Parti Quebecois was now the opposition and more radical than the ruling provincial Liberals of Premier Robert Bourassa.
Both Quebec and Mr. Mulroney set up citizens' commissions to sound out opinions. The Quebec panel is to report March 28, the nationwide panel June 1.
Few doubt that the Quebec commission will opt for some degree of independence. Its members were chosen jointly by Premier Bourassa and Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau. Most people who chose to testify favor some degree of independence, and there have been reports of internal squabbles with some members accusing others of not being pro-independence enough. Furthermore, Mr. Bourassa spent much of the end of the year in a U.S. hospital being treated for cancer, thus diluting his influence on the commission.
But late last year there came the first sounds on behalf of not letting Canada fall apart. The Liberals' new national leader, Jean Chretien, finally found his voice and began speaking again on behalf of unity and a relatively strong central government. Also, one commission member, Quebec Cabinet member Claude Ryan, had some nice words to say about federalism and said that it had brought prosperity to Quebec.
Post-Meech hasn't taken place in a vacuum, and what happens next is likely to be influenced by the other developments, too.
That Quebec's call for greater sovereignty was not a bid for all minority rights, but rather an attempt to promote and preserve its threatened French culture (threatened by birth rates rather than politics) was further dramatized last summer when Indians took to the warpath over land rights in Quebec. One of the complaints about Meech Lake was that it didn't do enough to protect the rights of Indians and Inuits. The Oka standoff indicated things would not be any better for minorities with Quebec.
The Mulroney government continued to sink in popularity, causing at least one observer to note that it was the first time in Canadian history that the government's approval rating was about equal to the prime rate -- both in the teens.
Mr. Mulroney had won re-election in November 1988 in a largely one-issue campaign, the free trade agreement with the United States. Once the agreement was signed days later, Mr. Mulroney had no real mandate or support for his programs. All he had were most of the votes in Parliament.