What Could Lie Ahead in a Disunited Canada Trade Disruptions Will Be but One of Washington's Worries If Quebec Secedes

Article excerpt

AS the Oct. 30 Quebec referendum on secession from Canada approaches, an increasingly concerned United States appears eager to abandon its traditionally quietist approach toward such northern rumblings in favor of a more overtly decisive stance.

And rightfully so: With the potential for disruptions of trade under NAFTA, as well as the threat of massive political instability along its longest border, Washington simply can't afford to sit this one out.

The old political wisdom in the US State Department was to cultivate a careful refrain, sometimes referred to as "the mantra." Asked for America's opinion on French Quebec's aspirations for independence, presidents and ambassadors would avoid trouble by saying they "preferred a united Canada," but that the decision "was one for Canadians to decide."

Trying to get State Department officials to go any further was about as easy as squeezing a lemon for its last drop of juice.

But suddenly, policy statements that were hitherto shared with Canadian representatives only behind closed doors are being aired publicly. Witness the ever-prudent Warren Christopher's recent foray into the Quebec-Canada melee.

Speaking to the media during a visit by Canada's foreign minister, the secretary of state warned against assuming that trade with the US would remain the same with an independent Quebec.

Common sense or rhetoric?

Common sense suggests that the current NAFTA signatories - the US, Canada, and Mexico - would try to wrest maximum concessions from an independent Quebec desperate to join the club. But the Quebec debate has little to do with common sense; nationalist campaigns rarely do.

This fight to secure a French-speaking sovereign state in the middle of North America has more to do with Gallic emotion and rhetoric in a land fertile with belief in a revisionist history claiming years of victimization by English oppressors.

Those determined to say "oui" to secession seem not to notice or not to care that the independent leaders have been hawking arguments often untenable with each other. For example, to improve Quebec's sagging economy, the reigning Parti Quebecois promises to slash its $5 billion deficit and $57 billion debt, and then, in the same breath, promises increased government spending and Soviet-like guarantees of employment. "Vote yes and it all becomes possible," goes the election slogan.

In this context of blind faith and lax political scrutiny, Quebec's premier and Parti Quebecois leader Jacques Parizeau and his separatist ally in Ottawa, Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc Quebecois, encountered little resistance in promising Quebec's easy and instant entry into NAFTA. …