Why Canada needs Quebec

October 28, 1995|By Daniel Berger

QUEBECERS ARE the Canadians with no identity crisis. They know who they are and they know their roots. They are proud to be the only French-speaking majority in North America.

And they know what they are not. They are not Americans. They don't have to keep convincing themselves of that. It makes them relatively pro-American.

When Ontarians object to Americans taking over their job opportunities or swamping their culture, Quebecers worry only about English-speaking Canadians doing that.

Canada, the world's second-largest country, is geographically unnatural, held together throughout its history by federal policy.

The natural affinities of English-speaking Canada are north-south rather than east-west: the Maritimes with New England, Ontario with the Midwest, prairie provinces with prairie states, British Columbia with the Pacific Northwest.

The Canadian federal answer was enormous public investments in east-west communications, particularly rail, air and broadcasting, to hold land and people together.

English-speaking Canadians base their more fragile identity on two things. The first is that they are not American as well as not British. During the Vietnam war, virtually all Canadians traveling abroad wore a maple leaf in apparel or jewelry to advertise that.

Today, it is perfectly clear that most Canadians covet our Atlantic beaches but want no part of our political or medical-care delivery systems. (That the rich ones avail themselves of the latter is more safety valve than rejection of their own.)

The second thing that distinguishes Canada is Quebec. No other country has one. (The U.S. has been bilingual since the Texas accession in 1845, but we don't admit it.) The sudden outpouring of English-speaking Canadians begging Quebecers to vote no to sovereignty in Quebec's referendum Monday is a belated waking-up to the second thing.

A lack of sympathy

Until very recently, English-speaking Canadians were overwhelmingly unsympathetic to Quebec complaints and aspirations. It became a matter of indifference to most whether Quebec stayed or went.

In the federal election two years ago, the regional Reform Party hostile to Quebec swept much of the West while the separatist Bloc Quebecois took Quebec, the nationwide Conservative Party vanished and the nationwide Liberals took power pledged to hold the country together.

Quebecers are the little boy who cried ''Wolf!'' People stopped paying attention. The 1980 referendum was exciting and zTC everyone worried. It went 60-40 for staying in Canada.

This one has been a yawn. Quebecers have more of a business class and stake in Canada than in 1980. The passion of the 1970s is passe. So English-speaking Canadians outside Quebec paid little attention, and Americans none.

The foreign country closest to Baltimore, our country's greatest trading partner, threatens to disintegrate and we can't be bothered to notice. We heard it before and nothing happened. Besides, it's been a listless campaign up there, none of the agitation one would expect were national existence on the line.

The sovereignty side was so weak going into this campaign it diluted its promise, suggesting that Quebecers could be sovereign and still have Canadian passports and dollars, never mind what Ottawa would say. Separate, they said, does not mean separate.

Then they said their charismatic leader in the federal parliament is chief of the campaign, rather than the cold-fish provincial premier who will in fact lead the country should it become one.

This worked. The polls show a late, fatalistic surge toward passage. The key component is a large body of Quebecers who say they don't want independence, but that Canada needs to be sent a message.

As a result, Canada is suddenly paying heed. The cry, ''Don't go!'' is heard through the land.

The Quebecers who are voting on Monday may wake up Tuesday and say that no one told them a vote for sovereignty was a vote for sovereignty. (Federalists kept saying it, but who listened?)

If the vote is Yes, the fat will be in the fire, whatever Quebec voters intended.

Quebec will not automatically have seceded. But a slow-motion crisis will have begun and all Canadians will get very angry. There is no telling where that might lead.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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