Malaise in the 'Most Favoured Nation'

DANIEL BERGER

October 23, 1993|By DANIEL BERGER

All nations envy Canada. It is what most want to be. Canada has the resources, vastness and diversity of a great nation without the responsibilities. It has North American living standards without the opprobrium attached.

It has great cities with all the attractions and none of the crushing problems of the great U.S. cities.

Whenever the U.S. is hated for its latest transgression as a great power -- which is usually -- Americans envy Canadians. Quite a few, when allowed, become Canadians.

Canadians, though beset by identity problems, accept the world's envy. Many call their country, as the Toronto Globe and Mail did earlier this month, ''the most favoured nation on earth.''

And so the world has failed to take sufficient notice that Canadians are not all that enamored of each other. Canada is poised to self-destruct, not violently as Yugoslavia did, but peacefully into parts, on the Czech and Slovak model. The Czechoslovak election of June 1992 sealed that country's doom. Monday's may do the same for Canada.

The Progressive Conservatives, who have ruled for nine years, will be thrown out. The Liberals will get more votes than any other party and more seats in the federal parliament. That much looks like the normal Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee of boring ** democracies, which Canada always thought itself to be.

But if the polls are to be believed, no truly national party will survive the vote. The Liberals will do so poorly in Quebec Province, their former stronghold, that their leader Jean Chretien is not assured of retaining his seat.

The polls suggest that the three-year-old Bloc Quebecois, a counterpart in federal elections to the provincial Parti Quebecois, will win most of the 75 seats from Quebec. And that the six-year-old Reform Party will win the most seats in the English-speaking West.

The Bloc Quebecois has a straightforward agenda, the sovereignty of Quebec. The Reform Party says it opposes the break-up of Canada but equally opposes concessions to prevent it. In tones of simple zeal echoing Ross Perot, it calls for balancing the budget and capping welfare and kicking out the politicians.

So it seems that Mr. Chretien will be asked to form a government, with much less than a majority of the 295 seats. It would be a minority government, kept in power by enemies for a price, or a coalition government taking enemies in.

The leftist New Democrats, who intended to be the junior partner to the Liberals, would demand the scrapping of NAFTA as their price. They are sinking so badly, they won't be asked.

Mr. Chretien's promise is to renegotiate NAFTA, which sounds like Bill Clinton. Only the Conservatives think that NAFTA is working, which enhances their unpopularity.

The polls suggest that Preston Manning, the leader of Reform, and Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Quebecois, will between them emerge as kingmaker for a price, and leader of the opposition. Who is which may be up to Mr. Chretien. Each has a vision of Canada inimical to his. He must probably make a deal with one devil to ward off the other. Therein lies Canada's future.

Kim Campbell, who replaced the shopworn Brian Mulroney as Conservative prime minister in June to save the party, started to do just that. A fresh face speaking with refreshing candor, she soared in polls. In September she called the election, and then plummeted.

Her indifference to unemployment and a nasty ad campaign about Mr. Chretien's slight deformity (his face is partially paralyzed from a childhood disease) alienated the electorate. The Conservatives appear to be sinking to fourth place.

The Reform Party's budget ax is no complement to the Liberal Party's jobs stimulus and welfare improvements. The Bloc Quebecois would destroy the constitutional unity of bilingual and multi-cultural Canada that is the legacy of Mr. Chretien's Quebec mentor, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

The likeliest model for the role of the Bloc Quebecois in federal affairs would be the Irish National Party of Charles Stewart Parnell in the British House of Commons more than a century ago, holding national policies hostage to separatist aims. The Reform Party is its unadmitted ally, happily alienating Quebecers.

Canada is not fated to break up. But Canadians will take a big step in that direction Monday.

Then the rest of the world will wake up to what they did, and think them all mad.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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