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A High-Risk Vote on Quebec 'Divorce' : Secession would have enormous negative impact on Canada

October 29, 1995

Fifteen years ago voters in Canada's largely French-speaking province of Quebec overwhelmingly rejected a referendum on sovereignty. On Monday, Quebecers will again decide whether their province should set its feet on the road to separation. This time, the polls suggest, the vote should be considerably tighter than the 60-40 margin in 1980.

There is in fact a chance that the separatist forces will triumph, triggering the first moves in what many Canadians believe would be a costly and destructive divorce. Quebec is home to a quarter of Canada's 29 million people and the site of roughly a quarter of Canada's economic base. Quebec's decision to reinvent itself as an independent nation would throw Canada's economy and financial markets into turmoil. Some economists fear a deep national recession would follow, perhaps even leading to default on the national debt. The U.S.-Canadian trade relationship, the strongest in the world with an astonishing total value of nearly $1 billion a day , would inevitably be hit hard.

The primary issues for Quebecers are old and familiar ones. Many believe that the equal status in the federal government granted the 10 provinces by Canada's constitution denies their province the prominence in national affairs to which its size and economic importance entitle it. Most fundamentally, French-speaking Quebecers want official recognition of their province as a "distinct society," with special protections for their language and culture. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, himself a Quebecer, has been repeating in the week leading up to the referendum that he supports such protections. Most Canadians, however, appear to lean in the other direction. Twice before, efforts to revise the constitution to acknowledge Quebec's special status have been rejected.

Under the language of Monday's referendum Quebec, before declaring its independence, would try to negotiate an economic and monetary union with the rest of Canada, along with new political accords. But even if the negotiations failed, the Quebec legislature would be authorized to unilaterally declare the province's independence within one year. The national government in Ottawa says all it is prepared to negotiate is Quebec's share of the $550-billion federal debt. While things can always change quickly in politics, for now neither side is in a conciliatory mood.

In a speech in Ottawa earlier this year President Clinton hailed Canada as "a model of how peoples of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity and mutual respect," words that leave little doubt that Washington, now as in the past, strongly favors a united Canada. But the always somewhat strained unity that is the inevitable product of a bicultural heritage now faces one of its severest challenges. It's now Canada's turn to contend with the powerful and often destructive force of separatist nationalism that has re-emerged in the world.

Quebec will gain its independence if that's what its voters want. But in the process it stands to lose much in the way of transfer payments from the central government, foreign investment and trade preferences with the United States. What reason suggests is that the price of secession would be cripplingly high.

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