A Necessary Condition of Civilized Life

June 13, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

OTTAWA — Ottawa. -- The real national sport of Canada is not hockey but debating Quebec independence. The problem is greatest for the English-speaking majority, odd as that might seem at first. Quebec could survive as a French-speaking enclave in English-speaking North America. But what reason for existence has English-speaking Canada? A quarrel two centuries ago over crown powers, long ago foreclosed by events?

Canada still has a queen, but the practical connections to London that as late as the 1940s made Canada distinct and different from the United States have all disappeared.

In the past a Canadian could be an ''American'' and a European at the same time, make a career on both sides of the Atlantic

and feel at home in both places. This no longer is true.

Hence, if Quebec were to become independent, part if not all of the rest of Canada would be under internally generated pressures to join the United States. However, those Canadians who think the United States anxious for ''a land bridge to Alaska'' (as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Lucien Bouchard -- a Quebec nationalist -- recently suggested) are quite wrong.

Americans might think annexing English Canada an obliging accommodation of unexpectedly discountenanced friends, but it certainly is no national ambition.

English Canada's ability to remain culturally and even politically independent actually depends on the binationality and bilingualism imposed by coexistence with French Canada. The extent to which bilingualism functions in daily life, at least in eastern Canada, is now very striking. The country's binationalism is undoubtedly responsible for the ease with which Canadians have opted for a multi-culturism still intensely controversial in the United States.

But is the breakup of Canada a serious question? Listening to politicians and reading the papers, the answer seems ''yes.'' The truth seems to be ''no.'' Quebec was a neglected province, treated with indifference and often contempt by Anglophone Canada from the end of the 18th century to the rise of Quebec separatism in the 1960s. The latter was a product of Quebec's rapid economic development and its emergence from the cultural and religious isolation that had been its means of self-defense over many generations.

A referendum in 1980 on a vaguely defined proposal for ''association-sovereignty'' and subsequent constitutional debate and reform have failed to produce a generally acceptable status for Quebec, causing the present demand for total independence. If the nationalist party in Quebec wins the provincial election next fall, it promises to call a referendum on declaring (or ''negotiating'') independence.

This has provoked leaders of the western provinces, who challenge Quebec's right to break away by unilateral choice. They say that if Quebec does go, they will make it painful. They note that Quebec's borders are open to dispute, since two-thirds of what now is Quebec was added only in the late 19th century, when lands were distributed that before had belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company and to the crown. Alberta's prime minister said at the end of May that the St. Lawrence Seaway in Quebec ''is a Canadian seaway,'' implying that Quebec should not be allowed to take it over.

The Indians of Quebec -- the First Nations, in the currently polite phrase -- are unenthusiastic about leaving Canada, and Anglophone Canadians say the aboriginal peoples have as much right to declare their own independence of Quebec as Quebec has to declare independence of Canada. English-speaking Quebeckers also suggest that they might declare their own independence.

All of which makes for exhilarating debate. However, the polls suggest that Quebec is going nowhere. They suggest that the province will not vote in favor of sovereignty, and even that the voters may not -- as generally assumed -- put the nationalist party into office next fall. A poll at the end of May showed a majority in Quebec against becoming ''an independent country,'' with only 35 percent determined to vote for independence.

The latter figure has consistently remained around or below 40 percent. It also goes down as the practical consequences of independence are pointed out. Many in Quebec are in a general or sentimental way in favor of independence, taking for granted that some association with the rest of Canada would go on that maintained most of the benefits of the present relationship. But when challenged to assume a part of the existing national debt and take on other onerous and costly responsibilities connected with sovereignty, enthusiasm tends to fade.

The truth seems to be that independence has not enough support for Quebec actually to leave Canada, but too much support for French Quebec to be happy staying -- which is a bad situation. An unresolvable quarrel has poisonous effect over the long term. This is true even though the issues at conflict are trivial by comparison with problems in most of the world.

Canadians might consider what Lord Acton, the great English historian, once said, that ''the combination of different nations in one state is as necessary a condition of civilized life as the combination of men in society.''

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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