Canadian Conundrum

January 28, 1994

In the new Canadian parliament, Prime Minister Jean Chretien's Liberal mandate is to save Canada's social safety net, and to save Canada. Curiously, the two goals are intertwined.

English-speaking Canadians who have no desire to become Americans contrast their generous welfare and unemployment insurance with practices in this country, and their state health system with ours. Yet during the recession, both are in trouble and driving each country into deficit. Mr. Chretien means to save the system through skillful paring.

But the smaller of two major opposition groups, the Reform Party, with roots in the West, wants Canada to go further and cut spending drastically. It would really strip away the social safety net. The larger, and therefore the official, opposition, doesn't want Canada to exist at all. It is the Bloc Quebecois, whose secessionist aims for Quebec won it nearly one-fifth of the seats in the federal House of Commons in the October election.

Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard is a former Conservative cabinet minister who understands parliamentary games. With his old Conservative Party all but vanished, he is playing the role of opposition leader for all Canada, up to a point. He now champions the social safety net the Liberals mean to pare and Reformers wants to gut, and U.S. Democrats to the left of President Clinton hold as a model for this country.

So far, the indications are that Mr. Bouchard does not wish to play a wrecking game to bring federal business to a halt in advance of a Quebec referendum for sovereignty expected in 1995. He is being "responsible." And as such he will fight for social policies that, at least in its current prolonged recession, Canada cannot afford.

Mr. Chretien's challenge is to hold Canada together and at the same time to accentuate its differentness from the United States. That is not an easy job that destiny has awarded him, and Mr. Bouchard will try to add to its difficulties.

The contradiction of Mr. Bouchard's position as champion of both Quebec sovereignty and the social safety net is that Quebecers must choose between the two. If Quebec ever does have to foot the bill for its own sovereignty, the social safety net Mr. Bouchard espouses would undoubtedly be chucked overboard. Only he won't say so now.

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