Canada has largely disappeared from the radar screens of U.S. newspapers and television during the past year. Except for a threat of Quebec secession or a fish war in the Pacific Northwest, Americans for the most part take their northern neighbors for granted. This is not the case with Canadians, however; they are better attuned to what is happening south of their border than are many Americans.
Several weeks ago my wife and I visited Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island to see how things were going in eastern Canada this year.
Four major stories were prominent on Canadian television and in the press. Two were business matters, one reported on the decline of the leftist New Democratic Party, and a fourth dealt with the federal government's preparations for a new Quebec referendum on independence.
Taken together, these front-page issues in Canada remind an American that our neighbor to the north only seems like an extension of our own business and political institutions. But we need to remind ourselves that Canada is indeed a separate, proud society of 30 million people which fears encroachment by the "colossus to the south."
A startling event for most Canadians in that last week of August was news that Eaton's department stores were going out of business, after dominating Canadian retailing for 130 years. Suddenly, the equivalent of our Sears and Roebuck company was shutting its sixty-four stores across the country and dismissing 13,000 employees and suppliers. As one reader put it in a letter to the Globe and Mail:
"It appears that Canada's store is having its final sale....Unlike many Canadians, I will not argue that the demise of Eaton's is a national tragedy; rather it is a sad reflection of the effects of mismanagement, nepotism and neglect."
Still, Canadian nationalists viewed Eaton's demise as yet another indication of the "Americanization" of their society and the "end of life in Canada as we know it," according to another writer.
A second example of Canadian sensitivities about American encroachment was a report that two major airlines, Air Canada and Canadian Airlines, might merge and make a deal with American Airlines that would it a greater role in air travel to and from Canada.
"Will American Airlines Dominate Canada's Skies? read a headline the Globe and Mail August 28. The story reported that as the planned merger comes under scrutiny, "criticism is mounting that the proposal is a Trojan Horse designed to give American Airlines unprecedented dominance in Canada's airline business."
A third big story was the resignation of British Columbias premier, Glen Clark, after a story broke that he was under police investigation on charges of corruption. Canada's weekly news magazine, Maclean's, asked in its August 30 issue: "Is Canada's Pacific province governable?" It cited the resignation as the third by a B.C. premier "under a cloud" since 1991.
The turmoil surrounding Clark, leader of the B.C. New Democrats, was a part of the larger story concerning the national New Democratic Party, a social democratic organization whose support has dropped significantly in the past several years. Only four years ago New Democrats controlled the government of Ontario, Canada's largest and richest province, but its fiscal irresponsibility produced a voter backlash that brought the Conservatives to power.
Alexa McDonough, the NDP's new national leader, wants to emulate Britain's prime minister Tony Blair and Germany's chancellor Gerhard Shroeder in moving her leftist party toward the center while retained its social justice image. Canadian pundits are not optimistic about the prospects.
The fourth news story, which did not get quite the attention of the other three, reported that the federal government, headed by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, plans to stake out its position regarding a new referendum that Quebec will probably hold on independence sometime in , 2000.
Chretien seems determined to lay down two bench marks for this referendum: What should be the wording of a proposal given to Quebec voters as they make a choice between continued association with Canada, or independence? And what result should constitute a clear mandate for separation from Canada?
A year ago the supreme court decided that the federal government and the other provinces will be obliged to negotiate with Quebec, if there is a clear answer to a clear question stated in a referendum. Chretien has now set up a working group of federal officials to plan Ottawas strategy around these issues. He hopes that Quebeckers will reject a clear question about pulling out of the Canadian Confederation.
Our visit to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick provided insight into the reactions of Canada's French-speaking population living outside of Quebec. The Acadians of Nova Scotia, who were expelled by the British (ethnic cleansing) two and a half centuries ago because of Britains renewed war with France, live in relative harmony with their English-speaking neighbors there, and in New Brunswick where they number nearly forty percent of the population.
I engaged one Acadian fishermen in conversation, in English, and he seemed firm on the separation issue:: "We don't agree with the Quebecois. If they want to leave Canada, let them go. We like it better this way." His colleagues nodded in agreement.
As an American who has visited Canada many times over thirty years and studied the rise of Quebec nationalism, I find it difficult to suggest an outcome of the next round in the national unity debate.
Current opinion polls in Quebec show that pro-independence forces are somewhat below the 50 percent margin that would trigger formal negotiations with the rest of Canada on the terms of separation. The current premier, Lucien Bouchard, is a crafty nationalist who will not put the question to another referendum unless he is convinced it will obtain a majority vote. My guess is that if Bouchard has doubts about reaching at least 50 percent in favor of independence, he will first call a provincial election and hope to increase the majority of his Parti Quebecois. That would give him more confidence about winning a referendum.
An important factor influencing many Quebeckers will be their degree of satisfaction with the Canadian economy. At present, prosperity reigns in most parts of the country and many Quebec voters may worry that their province will suffer economically if it separates.
Canada enters the 21st century with a strong economy and a central government in firm control of parliament. That government will use all its influence to dampen pro-independence sentiment in Quebec, and we should know in , 2000 if it or Quebec nationalists are in the ascendancy.
File last modified on Sunday, 22-AUG-2004 05:30 PM EST