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For Canada, Breaking Up is A Hard – And Wrong – Thing To Do

Canada is a country where something terrible is always just about to happen, but never does. The terrible thing is usually the secession of Quebec. The mere possibility of a province seceding reminds a U.S. citizen of the relative stability bequeathed to our country by the Union victory in the Civil War. In other respects, Canada’s political scene is usually so calm that Americans pay it no attention. We tend to see our northern neighbor as simply a big happy vacation land that produces great comedians and Hollywood movie locations that look more like American cities than our own do.

But hardly anything disturbs the political calm like breaking up one’s country. And in Canada, that is a real possibility. Like Sisyphus, Canada seems condemned to roll the rock of Quebec up the hill of federalism, only to have it roll back down, over and over. Worse, federalist forces have to win every election that is held on the issue, while secessionists need only win once.

Probably. You can’t say for sure because, in Canada, referenda often settle even less than they do here. If Quebeckers next Monday vote for “sovereignty,” it is still unclear what that will mean in practice. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien says it means separation, clear and simple. No more Canadian passports for Quebeckers. A division of the national debt, and no special favors thereafter. The federalists also are likely to back the Cree Indian Grand Chief, Matthew Coon Come, who wants his tribe’s huge northern tracts in Quebec to remain in Canada. The chief argues that aboriginals (as native peoples are known) have the same right to secede from Quebec that Quebec demands from Canada.

On the other side, Lucien Bouchard of the Bloc Quebecois asserts that Quebec certainly will become an independent nation if the “yes” vote prevails. But nationhood in this instance apparently is regarded as something between a strong province and fully foreign state. As for problems with the aboriginals and the manifold financial issues: These, Bouchard shrugs, can be worked out in due course.

Both sides charge that the other is insincere and unrealistic. But thanks largely to the charismatic Bouchard, the “yes” vote suddenly pulled a bit ahead as the campaign entered its last week. In dreadful anticipation, the Canadian dollar and stock prices fell.

The best hope left for federalism, according to former Liberal Party provincial leader Gordon Gibson, who is now is now a fellow of the free-market Fraser Institute in Vancouver, B.C., is “ballot box chill.” In this scenario, Quebec voters may celebrate independence over the weekend, but then soberly vote their economic interests — which surely lie with federalism — the next day.

However, Quebec sovereignty seems to be a growing cultural aspiration for francophone citizens of la belle province, especially the young. To the extent that economic motives operate beyond that ethnic pull, dissatisfaction over the presently stagnant economy appears to make “change” the ally of separation rather than federalism. Sovereignty is being sold as hope.

The vote thus comes at a bad time. Years of fiscal mismanagement have left provincial and national governments with deficits relatively much bigger than America’s. Even the softhearted Liberal Party has been forced to introduce economy measures. But many Quebeckers have not got the word. Though they are, on balance, subsidized by the federal government, they still think their economic difficulties come from unfair treatment at the hands of “TROC” — the rest of Canada.

That attitude makes TROC as angry as reserved Canadians allow themselves to get. Annoyance is strongest in the West, notably across our border in British Columbia.

That, finally, raises the question, how would a “yes” vote in Quebec affect us?

The short answer is that if Canada is hurt, we will feel at least some of its pain. Canadians are proud that their country has been named “the most livable” in the world, so the breakup would be a blow to morale. Financial markets would suffer and government revenues would drop. Canada is our NATO ally and one of our best friends in international affairs, so we will notice if its foreign policy and defense budgets are slashed. In economic terms, it is our largest trading partner, by far. A recession in Canada can’t help us.

In the U.S. Northwest, we have especially strong reasons to be concerned. Commercial and cultural ties between Washington, Oregon and British Columbia – the informal region sometimes called “Cascadia” – are growing stronger all the time. Earlier this week in Vancouver, for example, representatives of the private and governmental sectors of the region investigated ways to collaborate in expanding overseas tourism. Efforts to build friendly regional competition in some sports (such as basketball) and cross-border fan support in others (such as baseball and hockey) are being explored. Other initiatives seek to improve transportation links, form education partnerships among our universities, boost arts activities on both sides of the border and just take time to learn from one another. But, to be very clear, nobody seeks political union; a strong, independent Canada is good for all of us.

Therefore, we must hope that something terrible once again does not quite happen to Canada. The constitutional crisis a Quebec separatist vote would incite, and even the frustrations that would follow a narrow federalist victory, can evoke only one legitimate response from down here: regret.

The best thing we can do after Monday’s vote is to emphasize how much we in the U.S. side of Cascadia value the ties we have with our provincial neighbors.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Civic Leadership.