Canada's Culture Controversy BOOKS

Article excerpt

IT'S tempting for outsiders to shake their heads and wonder why on earth Canada - recently ranked by the United Nations as the world's best place to live - is tied in knots of political self-doubt and might even follow Czechoslovakia down the road of national breakup.

Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec is demanding "distinct society" status and a slew of powers to protect its French heritage. And leading figures in Quebec are raising their voices to say that if Quebec cannot get such protections, the province should split from Canada and form a new country.

The long-bubbling constitutional debate reaches a boil this fall with a referendum on sovereignty in Quebec. And though much has been written in recent years either promoting such a breakup, or questioning its wisdom, little light has been shed on a central stumbling block to Canadian unity: the rapid growth of Quebec separatism fueled by rising nationalism.

Mordecai Richler's Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country (Alfred A. Knopf, 277 pp., $23) sheds heat as well as light on the growth of nationalism in the province and its interweaving with French cultural identity. The combination, he argues, has produced a cultural nationalism fueled by emotion and increasing intolerance of minorities, most notably Quebec's resident Jewish and English-speaking populations. It has also, he writes, led to much wasted time squabbling over nonissues.

"A Quebecer born and bred, I suffer from a recurring nightmare that all of us, French- and English-speaking, will one day be confronted by our grandchildren, wanting to know what our generation was about when the Berlin Wall crumbled.... We will be honor bound to reply, why, in Quebec, we were hammering each other over whether or not bilingual commercial signs could be posted outside as well as inside ... over whether or not Quebec could be officially crowned `a distinct society.' "

Note that this book, while little-known in the United States, is extremely controversial at home. After excerpts of the book appeared in The New Yorker last fall, Richler found himself under assault from politicians, newspaper publishers and columnists, and even mocked on the streets of Montreal where he lives.

Perhaps best known for his novel, "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz," Richler's razor-sharp logic and wit target cultural anomalies that include, for example, Montreal's vigilante "tounge troopers" who snap photos of outdoor signs to help the provincial language commission make sure they meet restrictive language laws that limit (or ban in the case of outdoor commercial signs) the use of English. …