Canadian Stumbling

March 08, 1992

Even as the people of Quebec back away from a commitment to independence, the rest of Canada is blocking other doors. The present Quebec government's reluctant decision to hold a binding referendum on the matter by Oct. 26 appears reaffirmed rather than weakened by a national parliamentary committee's blueprint for broader provincial powers and special status for Quebec.

Most Canadians seem to think that the 131-page report by a Canadian unity committee of the lower house of the federal parliament, made up of the three leading federal parties, goes too far. Yet not only Jacques Parizeau, leader of the separatist Quebecois Party in the French-speaking province, but also its federalist-minded premier, Robert Bourassa, denounced the new formula as giving too little to Quebec.

The formula, a variant on the doomed Meech Lake accord reached by Canada's provincial premiers and the federal government, affirms Quebec's distinct society, giving that province veto power on certain constitutional changes and control of its culture. But it also gives all provincial governments in Canada greater powers in a number of spheres. While it is healthy that the ruling Progressive Conservatives, the Liberals and the left-leaning New Democrats agree, they didn't really, leaving exceptions in a document that was two days late coming out because of discord.

Meanwhile, support in Quebec province for independence dipped to 46 percent in a published poll, down from a high of 64 percent a year ago. Among French-speakers, support was 52 percent. This simmering down of nationalist passion has nothing to do with what the parliamentary unity committee in Ottawa proposes. Rather it is a testament to declining confidence in the economic wisdom of going-it-alone. Proponents of sovereignty suggest it would not be alone but within a U.S.-Canadian-Quebec common market. That is assuming more than they can know.

The parliamentary unity committee report was only the start of a legislative attempt in Ottawa to cater to Quebec's needs while retaining the understanding of the rest of the country. A unity proposal that Premier Bourassa cannot support is not promising.

Most Americans take for granted that Canada should exist in roughly its present form, for reasons of continental stability, defense and economics. It would be a shame if, when it really counts, most Canadians don't think it that important.

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