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CANADA : Quebec Vote: Is Forced Unity Always Better?

November 05, 1995|James Chace | James Chace teaches international relations at Bard College and is the editor of the World Policy Journal at the New School

NEW YORK — The razor-thin margin of victory in the Canadian referendum over sovereignty for Quebec solves nothing. Resentment against the rest of Canada, as well as against the Anglophone Quebeckers, will continue to fuel the fire of French-speaking Quebec separatism.

The rather plodding premier, Jacques Parizeau, has announced his resignation as head of the Parti Quebecois. If he remains in politics, the fiery Lucien Bouchard, who now heads the second-largest parliamentary group, the Bloc Quebecois, is likely to take Parizeau's place. And the next referendum may well give the separatists their long-sought prize. After all, if 27,000 votes had gone the other way on Monday, Quebec would be headed for sovereignty.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien has called for new negotiations to satisfy separatist demands by offering Quebec a veto over future constitutional changes and decentralizing power to all the provinces--giving them greater authority over immigration, job training and higher education. This is not likely to satisfy Quebec. Both Parizeau and Bouchard have said they have no interest in improving the way a federalist Canada can work.

Nor are the other provinces disposed to follow Chretien's lead. After two Quebec referendums in the past 15 years, the western provinces will refuse to accord Quebec special treatment, or they will use the negotiations to seize the opportunity for further autonomy. This will weaken all Canada and contribute to its final break-up. Preston Manning, leader of the western-based Reform Party, the third-largest bloc in the House of Commons, was probably right when he said Chretien "has learned nothing from the referendum." Any bargaining among Quebec, Ottawa and the western provinces is likely to be bitter and unproductive.

Here in the United States, sentiment has been overwhelmingly against Quebec separatism. Editorialists and the White House almost uniformly spoke out against separatism, citing the American model. But Quebec has never accepted the 1982 constitution, which replaced Canada's original constitution, embodied in the British North America Act, passed in the 1860s. Twenty years ago, the revised constitution denied Quebec its traditional status as a distinct national society, and the French-speaking Quebeckers never accepted this construction. Twice in the last 10 years, in the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, Ottawa failed to gain the support from the provinces to grant Quebec its "distinct" status. There is no reason to believe it will succeed at this juncture.

It has always been assumed that an independent Quebec would be a disaster for the United States. Among Americans, the historical memory of the Civil War, rather than the Revolution, sets us against secession. The conflict in former Yugoslavia only reinforces America's disposition to condemn separatism.

But Quebec is neither the Southern Confederacy, nor Bosnia-Herzegovina; Quebec, in fact, would prove a viable state. Its per-capita income would place it 15th among all industrialized countries, ahead of Australia, Britain and Sweden. Its gross domestic product would put it 17th in the world.

While secession would doubtless rock Quebec's economy, and would make it more difficult for the government to borrow so readily, the financial markets would make it possible for Quebec to survive--at a price. Presumably, adjustments would have to be made, and they would not be pleasant: The social services Quebec prizes might well have to be cut. But Quebec could find its place within a broader North American economy, and could eventually prosper.

Surely, the 7.2 million Quebeckers, with their $164 billion GDP, could not be denied membership in a North American Free Trade Agreement. If Washington is preparing to promote membership for Chile, with one-tenth the per-capita income of Quebec, could it stand in Quebec's way? It hardly seems likely.

Membership in the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank--a sovereign Quebec would surely hold its own against most other nations, with weaker economies and a less homogeneous population.

The case can be made that the unity of a smaller Canada and an independent Quebec would make it easier, not harder, for both groupings to proceed with economic development and a greater degree of social and cultural cohesion than now exists. Western Canada, rich in natural resources, believes Quebec has been a drain on the national economy and that all the central provinces have exploited their region of North America.

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