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