AS they prepare to vote in parliamentary elections Monday, Canadians show signs of the distrust for "politics as usual" now sweeping the industrial democracies. With a long recession, an unemployment rate of 11 percent, and a growing federal deficit, Canadian voters will likely drive the ruling Progressive Conservative Party, or Tories, from office.
But the discontent extends far beyond disaffection with Tories: Voters are questioning the longterm consensus that has held bilingual Canada together.
Canada's existence has always been problematic, dating to the French surrender of Quebec to England in 1763. Regional demands have conflicted with Canadian national aspirations. But the three major parties dominating politics after World War II - Tories, Liberals, and socialist New Democrats - have joined when necessary to keep regionalism at bay. These efforts suffered a stunning blow last October. In a national referendum, 53 percent of voters rejected the Charlottetown Accord, the Ottawa-backed constitutional agreement aimed at ending Quebec's secessionist threat.
Dissatisfaction with the players in Canadian politics has strengthened two grass-roots parties that arose during last year's referendum debate: the Bloc Quebecois and the western-based Reform Party. The threat of Italian-style minority governments, and a feeling of uncertainty, loom large. Americans, who have all but ignored Canada's election, now must turn their attention north. At the very least, NAFTA's future is in question.
A year ago, Tory decline was a given. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the least popular leader in Canadian history, had no choice but to resign. But Canada's Tories - whose policies are more akin to European Christian Democrats than to American conservatives - staged a small comeback. By naming Defense Minister Kim Campbell, a Vancouver lawyer with a sense of humor, to be prime minister, the Tories distanced themselves from Mr. Mulroney.
Chants of "Kim, Kim, you're just like him" showed that reshaping the Tory image was not enough. "Campbellmania" has faded. Today, the prime minister is perceived as short on substance and out of touch with the middle class.
Quebec often threatens to separate from Canada. Now, however, separatists are seeking for the first time to control Quebec's delegation in Ottawa. Polls show the Bloc - led by ex-Conservative Lucien Bouchard, an environment minister under Mulroney - will capture 50 of the francophone province's 75 seats in the House of Commons. The Bloc has been able to win broad support by steering clear of its pre-campaign emphasis on Quebec independence.
A vote for the Bloc is by no means equal to a vote for Quebec sovereignty. But the imminent strong Bloc vote will lead to a showdown referendum on Quebec's status in the near future.