Canada's Choices: Force, Divorce, or Reconciliation

Article excerpt

In its year-end survey, Maclean's found that a lot of Canadians believe that their country won't last in its present form to the end of the century -- less than four years from now. They may be right. Ottawa's recently-legislated concessions, by common consent, were too little, too late--and more than most non-Quebecers would accept. In Quebec, sovereignty has more support now than it did on October 30 and the province's most popular politician is now in charge.

What about the ROC? If Quebec voted to secede, say in late 1997, how long would the Rest-of-Canada last? Would Alberta and British Columbia stick around when Ontario had half the population and most of the wealth? Would Mike Harris's Ontarians tax themselves to support the four Atlantic provinces or Manitoba and Saskatchewan? British Columbians already have their doubts.

Incidentally, how solid is Ontario's own wealth? There were always three pillars to Ontario's prosperity: cheap and available energy, an efficient education system, buttressed by a flood of skilled immigrants, and some of the wealthiest, most productive states in the Union as immediate neighbors. In case you haven't looked, Ontario Hydro supplies the second most costly power on the continent, skilled immigrants stay in Europe, Ontario schools can't even teach self-esteem and Michigan, Ohio and upstate New York are part of the Rust Belt. Currently the auto industry is a quarter of Ontario's GDP. Without Quebec as part of the market, how long would the Canada-U.S. Auto Trade Pact last?

Backed by most premiers, Preston Manning insists that all Canadian provinces are equal. It sounds nice. Will it look as nice when four equal provinces are separated from five other equal provinces by the resentful bulk of an independent Quebec? And resentful it will be, as the glowing promises of the sovereignists fade. As ever, Canada will serve as scapegoat for shattered dreams. Nothing is more fatuous than the belief, among separatists on both sides of the Ottawa River, that sovereignty will solve the Quebec-Canada problem.

Canadians will contribute to that bitterness, perhaps even to open violence, to the degree they defend other rights to self-determination among Quebec's First Nations and among the minority of Quebecers who will insist on remaining Canadian without becoming refugees. If we fail to act against secession, what happens to our standing as a society committed to justice and the rule of law? If we use the courts to overcome the exercise of popular sovereignty, as already validated by two referendum campaigns in which the federal prime minister took part, what political standing do we have?

And if we argue in advance that self-determination will respect no borders, do we extend the debate to francophone regions beyond Quebec, or to Labrador, still claimed by many Quebecois? Ron Irwin [federal minister of Indian affairs and northern development] may encourage First Nations' preferences for Canada but have we the force to back their claim or the will to use it? Who, in this mess, will focus on paying off our debts or even controlling our deficits? Yet if we don't, our savings will vanish with the value of our dollar.

Unlike death and taxes, the break-up of Canada, with all the attendant disasters, is not inevitable. It will happen because you and I, individual Canadians and Quebecois, deliberately ignore realities, reject compromise and willfully hand on to our children a diminished and perhaps a shattered Canada. Those children will be right to look at us as a generation that failed; a stupid, selfish, and destructive generation. We will lose the Canada we have inherited.

Before we give up, consider our options. As of now, Canadians have three choices. We can (a), like Guy Bertrand and Stephen Scott, simply turn to the law and, ultimately, to force to keep Quebec in Canada. We can (b) like Preston Manning and many others, academics as much as rednecks, prepare ourselves for a messy divorce. …