Magazine article Insight on the News

Canadian Vote Puts Plenty of Paradoxes into Play

Magazine article Insight on the News

Canadian Vote Puts Plenty of Paradoxes into Play

Article excerpt

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited Canada briefly while working on Democracy in America, he was astounded to hear people in Quebec speaking French. France had lost its grip on North America to England during the Seven Years War some 75 years earlier, so he had assumed that the ragtag bunch of adventurers, paupers, scoundrels and deported convicts it had left behind in Canada would have gone over to English.

But Tocqueville heard all around him "Norman French" -- by which he meant modern French with a regional Norman accent -- since Normandy was where most of these Quebecers were from, as was Tocqueville himself. Indeed, with most provincial accents in France now eroded by a centralized educational system, Tocqueville's Norman French lives on mainly in Quebec and Louisiana.

It's hard to know what would surprise Tocqueville most today:

* That three-quarters of the descendants of those French-Canadians have since converted to English with a vengeance, immigrating by the tens of millions to the United States. They constitute the country's most invisible ethnic group, from historian Will Durant to helicopter pilot Michael Durant.

* That those French who remained behind in Quebec, taking the contrary path and clinging defiantly to their language, are now seemingly intent on breaking up Canada.

* Or that Jean Chretien, a minority Quebecer who supports French as the official language for his province but resolutely opposes the breakup of his country, has been elected prime minister in the biggest electoral landslide in Canadian history.

With a huge majority of Quebec's seats in the federal House of Commons having swung over to the Bloc Quebecois in the recent election, it's now easily in the power of the province to secede from Canada. According to various public opinion polls, between 40 and 53 percent of Quebec's French speakers favor this.

At least that's what they say For the time being, the Bloc Quebecois, dedicated though it is to secession, constitutes somewhat grotesquely "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition."

But this privileged position is hotly contested by another powerful new regional party -- this time in the West -- a genuine alternative to Kim Campbell's feeble Progressive Conservatives, who suffered a stunning defeat. The Reform Party's Preston Manning is often compared to Ross Perot, principally because he came out of nowhere. But Manning bears a much greater resemblance to Ronald Reagan. "Don't give us another government program," he said during the election, "just get off our backs and out of our pockets. …

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