Language shapes Canada's future

October 02, 1997|By David M. Shribman

WASHINGTON -- The United States has contingency plans for events 10,000 miles away. No development along our southern border is too small to escape Washington's attention. So why is Washington so unready for potential upheaval along the nation's northern boundary?

The officials who occupy the highest levels of American government are frightfully uninformed about the continuing threat of a divided Canada.

They are, moreover, stunningly unprepared to respond to the possibility that one of the great assumptions of American foreign policy for the past two centuries -- the presence of a united and tranquil nation on our longest frontier -- may not endure into the next century.

"The Canadians are thinking about this question," says GOP Rep. Tom Campbell of California, "but we are not."

Canada isn't about to shatter apart, at least in the next several months.

But no sober Canadian analyst is prepared to say that the country as it is currently constructed -- 10 pleasant provinces arranged neatly in a row, trading like mad with the United States and seldom causing much of a ruckus below the border except for an occasional inscrutable shake-up about salmon or soft lumber or durum wheat -- will exist forever.

The recent flurry of constitutional talks in Canada shows that the nation has put off, but hasn't solved, the question at the very heart of its survival: Can two languages exist among one people?

Or, to illustrate just how complicated the Quebec problem is: Can two nations -- one French, one English -- exist within one country?

No bother

American policy-makers don't want to confront those questions, believing no place as peaceful as Canada can cause them much bother.

But they overrate Canada's tranquillity, and they underrate its potential to pose difficult questions, including: Should an independent Quebec be recognized? Would NAFTA be widened include a separate Quebec?

What about defense questions along Quebec's border with four American states?

The Washington reaction, even among those who should know better, is a yawn. The Clinton administration refused even to participate in House hearings examining U.S. views on the potential breakup of Canada.

Top officials are completely unaware of the deep yearnings of many French-speaking Quebecois for nationhood and the deep impatience of many English-speaking Canadians on this very issue.

The approach here is invariably to say that we would like Canada to stay together.

We would like all marriages to last forever, too. They don't, and wishing won't make it so.

The truth is both sides in the dispute between Canada and Quebec are consulting their lawyers. Contemplating the shape of a free Quebec is a cottage industry in the province, bigger than maple sugar and just as sticky.

The Liberal government in Ottawa has asked the Supreme Court of Canada for an answer to the ultimate Canadian question: Would a unilateral declaration of independence by Quebec be legal?

The approach of a new century only increases these pressures. Quebec is likely to hold its provincial elections sometime next year or maybe in 1999.

If the separatist Parti Quebecois wins again, as expected, it will be in a position to call a sovereignty referendum shortly thereafter. The likely slogan: A new country for a new century.

David M. Shribman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 10/02/97

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