New parties threaten Canadian unity as they steamroll toward elections

October 17, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Two new radical parties, tapping voter anger in this month's Canadian general election campaign, are changing the face of this country's politics and again throwing into question Canada's long-term survival as a federation.

"This could be the greatest constitutional crisis in Canada's history, far greater than anything we have encountered to this point," said Conrad Winn, president of COMPAS Inc., an Ottawa-based polling organization.

"It's a watershed for sure, the breakdown of the old party system."

One of the new parties is intent on splitting Canada -- a valued U.S. ally and member of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Group of Seven world financial powers -- into sovereign French and English nations. The other advocates "a new federalism," transferring more power to the provinces.

Caught between these two devolutionary attitudes are the three main-line federalist parties: the governing Progressive Conservatives, the opposition Liberals, and the minority New Democrats.

They have dominated Canadian politics for decades, sharing only the central conviction that Canada should remain a united, bilingual and multicultural society. Now they are also jointly suffering a backlash from recession-weary voters who go to the polls Oct. 25 tired of "politics as usual" and desperate for new solutions.

The outcome could have a profound effect on the relationship between the United States and its single biggest trading partner. Any split would throw into question Canada's involvement in the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement and its current free trade agreement with the United States.

Separatists strong

Rising from the east is the Bloc Quebecois, the latest in a long line of separatist movements in the French-speaking province. Its central platform is that federalism has failed the French minority and should be jettisoned for Quebec's sovereignty.

The polls show it will dominate the province, sending as many as 60 new members to the 295-seat federal parliament in Ottawa, where they are likely to be a constant irritant to a system they want to sunder. Even more threatening, the separatists could win power in Quebec's provincial elections next year, giving them the ability to push the issue to crisis point by calling a referendum on sovereignty.

The Bloc's leader, Lucien Bouchard, a former Conservative Cabinet member who quit to found his own party in 1990, said during a campaign debate with the other candidates that splitting Canada was "common sense."

"We have a vision of the country, but there is a country missing in that vision," he added. "That country is Quebec. . . . We are not trying to destroy Canada. It's already done."

Dale Thomson, professor of political science at McGill University, Montreal, questioned whether the threat of separation was real, noting that support in the province for breaking away had held fairly constant since the 1960s at less than 40 percent and that a previous 1980 referendum on sovereignty was rejected by French-speaking voters.

The upsurge of the Bloc was a protest vote against the current government in Ottawa.

All business

Out of the west comes the Reform party, a right-wing pro-business group, formed in 1987.

It would prefer to change Canada with Quebec in it, but is prepared to do so without it.

The party's leader, Preston Manning, told a Toronto audience that if Quebec wanted independence, the federal government's job would simply be "to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs for the rest of Canada."

Mr. Manning speaks no French in what is officially a bilingual country, and his base of support is solidly Anglo-Canadian, originating in the prairie states but finding new strength in Ontario, the country's largest and richest province.

He has struck a chord with many Anglo-Canadians, tired of trying to accommodate the cultural "distinctness" of Quebec and resentful of official bilingualism.

The party wants a more democratic system, with an elected, not appointed, Senate, more frequent use of referendums and citizens' initiatives, less federal control, more power for the free market. It is the obvious alternative to the discredited Conservatives.

Mr. Manning's fresh approach to Canadian federalism and stances on other issues, such as eliminating the country's deficit in three years and reducing immigration, have swelled his support to 20 percent, high enough to suggest the Reformists could finish in second place if their current momentum continues to build.

Powerful populism

For the established power brokers here, the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform Party is particularly frustrating because they feed on forms of timely populism that are hard to counter.

They are not contaminated with the political viruses of the past: cronyism by the ruling Tories, welfare state excesses by the Liberals. They bring a different agenda to the political arena.

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