Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To Save Canada

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

To Save Canada

Article excerpt

IT is increasingly apparent that the recent razor-thin victory of federalists in the Quebec independence referendum has done little to settle the question of Canada's future.

The challenge for Canada is whether it can overcome the contradiction built into the confederation from the beginning.

The United States began with a similar contradiction: slavery in the Southern states. From the time of the constitutional convention in 1787 until the Civil War broke out in 1860, Americans tried everything under the sun to balance the interests of the "slave" states and the "free" states. Finally the South decided the only way to survive was to separate. Abraham Lincoln, to whom the Union was everything, met force with force.

The Canadian contradiction is cultural and linguistic. It, too, dates back to the beginning of European settlement in North America. Although Britain and France have been staunch allies during this century, it is easy to forget that for the previous 900 years they were bitter rivals. Even today there are aftertastes of that rivalry between the English-speaking countries (the US included) and France. Or, sadly, between many English- and French-speaking Canadians.

Historic guarantees

When the British and American colonists drove France from its North American empire in 1763, the French language and culture, including the Roman Catholic Church, remained firmly in place. In 1774, the British Parliament guaranteed Quebec that its language, culture, and religion would be recognized and respected.

This special recognition was preserved in the British North America Act of 1867, organizing the current Canadian confederation. But from Quebec's point of view, it was abrogated by the "repatriation" of Canada's constitution in 1982, when Quebec became simply a province like all the others. Thus in Quebeckers' view, their status was unilaterally changed from that of a "founding people," to one French province versus nine mostly English ones.

Every attempt to reinsert a constitutional guarantee for Quebec's efforts to protect its language and culture has failed, usually because of opposition from Western provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia, which complained it gave Quebec too many special privileges. To Quebeckers, of course, that was the point.

Last week Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien unveiled new proposals meant to mollify Quebec and keep it in the confederation. …

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