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Next Step : The Issue of Quebec Separatism Is No Longer an 'if ' for Canada : Many observers say the French-speaking province is certain to gain political sovereignty. The only remaining question is its future ties with the country it wants to leave.

January 08, 1991|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUEBEC CITY — Early last year, The New Republic complained that George Bush's Washington is so dull that "it's positively Canadian around here."

To which Jeffrey Simpson, national affairs columnist of Canada's Globe and Mail, replies, "Americans will have to revise their traditional stereotype of Canada as a country where nothing of interest or consequence ever happens."

Simpson is just one of many political analysts today who believe Canada is embarking on a political restructuring that could change the face of North America. The will for political sovereignty in Quebec has intensified so much that the question is no longer whether the French-speaking province will take its leave of Canada but how complete the separation will be.

"Sovereignty (for Quebec) is not inevitable, but I would say it's likely," says Jean-Francois Lisee, the Quebec-based author of a book on the province's place in U.S. policy-making toward Canada. "The process has been launched on a track that doesn't lead anywhere else."

Simpson posits two likely outcomes: Canada could remain a single confederation but with looser links between provinces, or Quebec could become a sovereign nation, linked economically to Canada by a superstructure resembling the European Economic Community.

No one can say yet just how Quebec will achieve its goals. Some independentistes are pressing for talks with English-speaking Canada to begin early this year. But others say it makes more sense for Quebec to hold a referendum on independence this spring, win a popular mandate, unilaterally declare independence, then start negotiating with Canada.

With such upheavals on the horizon, it's time to consider what Canada's troubles mean for America, with its cooperative, tranquil, if highly complex relationship, encompassing everything from joint drug-interdiction schemes to a multibillion-dollar bilateral trade pact.

If the most extreme scenarios prove out, and Quebec pulls away from this tightly woven, two-nation fabric, what would it feel like south of the border?

Although such a prospect deeply distressed Americans in the 1970s, conversations with economists, political analysts and officials now suggest a changed U.S. attitude. It has gone "from one of animosity to one of interest and curiosity," says Pierre Fortain, a Universite de Montreal economist.

That change stems partly from political reconfigurations in Europe and their failure to cause major turmoil. Americans no longer automatically equate Quebec's nationalist impulses with chaos and destruction.

Another factor in America's laid-back assessment of the Quebec question has been the pro-business, conservative attitude of the independentistes . Quebecers have taken pains to get the word out that they seek sovereignty as a means of protecting their language and culture, not as a construct of some revolutionary principles.

Lucien Bouchard, a former federal Cabinet minister who stepped down last spring to work for Quebec's sovereignty, says that if Quebec were to achieve that goal tomorrow, Americans wouldn't even notice: "Apart from logistical things, I don't see any difference. There would be two (northern) neighbors for America, instead of one. But they would be friendly neighbors."

Encouraging words--but they don't convince Canadian analysts outside Quebec. "I don't think people are thinking about just how . . . difficult it is to break up a country," says David Cameron, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. A loosening of Canadian bonds will never provoke a crisis for America but would cause headaches, he says, adding, "It could be a God-awful mess."

ECONOMICS

In the late 1970s, Quebec's economic thinking may have frightened Americans more than any other aspect of the province's independence push. The separatist Parti Quebecois then was in power, led by Rene Levesque, who had been responsible for nationalizing Quebec's electric utilities and who unnerved the province's U.S. bankers by repeatedly quoting the Declaration of Independence. He was no Fidel Castro, but Americans took to saying his Quebec would be "the Cuba of the North."

Quebec sovereigntists learned a lesson. Today, business leaders have pushed their way to the fore of the sovereignty parade, and they talk not about nationalizations or other state interventions but about growth and prosperity. They are fond of ticking off names of prosperous European economies the size of Quebec's and concluding that Quebec would be just like them.

This doesn't mean Quebec will come into its own without economic disruption, however. Difficult decisions would have to be made about currencies. Quebec wants to keep using the Canadian dollar and have a say over Canadian monetary policy, but there is little reason to assume a jilted English-speaking Canada would go along. Federal assets also would have to be redistributed if Quebec broke free. Who would end up owning the roads in Quebec, the airports, army trucks, post offices?

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