CANADA: Letter from Canada - Federal glue becomes unstuck.

CANADA: Letter from Canada - Federal glue becomes unstuck. - Malcolm Wheatley remembers the mood of "one Canada at any cost" in the '60s. Now the debate over break-up is more one of "how" rather than "if".

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Malcolm Wheatley remembers the mood of "one Canada at any cost" in the '60s. Now the debate over break-up is more one of "how" rather than "if".

The recession might be hitting everyone else, but map makers are working overtime as countries break up and reform. So far, the cartographers' pens have been preoccupied with Germany, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia - but they may soon be moving westwards to Canada.

With the demise of the Soviet Union, Canada is now the world's largest country. But for how much longer? The strains and tensions within the coast-to-coast splodge of pink that stretches the 3,000-odd miles from Newfoundland on the Atlantic to British Columbia on the Pacific may well be nearing breaking point. Quebec separatism has always bubbled under the surface, last rising as a major issue in the '60s. Then, the "one Canada at any cost" mood in the rest of the country prompted both generous aid for Quebec's economy and a number of bilingual language concessions, which together proved sufficient to preserve the federation.

This time, the federal glue is coming under greater pressure. In Quebec itself, separatism is now increasingly seen as an economically viable and culturally desirable option. Feelings in the rest of Canada are also different. The mood has gone beyond the "let them go if they want to" stage, to one that verges on "good riddance". As a result, when last year's Meech Lake constitutional reform conference collapsed in disarray, enormous efforts went into trying to broker a solution. The result, a compromise proposal to recognise Quebec as "a distinct and separate society within Canada", has met with a decidedly mixed reception. Quebec dithers whilst trying to decide if it's good enough and even more non-French Canadians have swung behind the "good riddance" school of thought.

A lot of the impetus for this change in viewpoint has come from Canada's West. British Columbia and Alberta are the biggest net payers to the national exchequer; Quebec the largest net recipient. With their own economies beset by long-term readjustment problems, why give away a big piece of pie to ungrateful recipients thousands of miles away? The bilingual policy has also irked. Despite French speakers comprising less than 1% of British Columbia's population, by law virtually everything bought or read there has to have text in both languages. An irritation, but a tolerable one - if applied evenhandedly. But no. In Quebec, its own provincial law makes French the prime language of commerce, and severely restricts or bans the use of English language signs. Enough is enough, say the voters of Vancouver: why should we be bilingual if they aren't? Yet many of them are - but not in French.

The most striking difference between Vancouver now - as opposed to, say, 10 years ago - is the number of Chinese and other Asians. In part, it is because Vancouver has attracted an enormous influx of people fleeing from Hong Kong; but there has also been substantial inward investment from Taiwan and Japan. For Vancouver is a "Pacific rim" city. Its trade links are increasingly with the fast-growing economies over the Pacific rather than with the more sluggish hinterlands to its East. Tourism from Japan is booming, too: Vancouver is one of the nearest of North American cities. And trade links with the United States are increasingly strong.

The repercussions of 1989's US-Canada free trade Act are still working their way through the system, but the general trend is clear. With a large proportion of Canada's total population living within a hundred miles of the US border it has always made sense to trade across the border rather than along it. Wilder elements are already pointing out the logic of union between people who share the same language, live next door to each other, and trade with each other. A US visa is not presently required for a visit to Vancouver. But if Canada does disintegrate, it could be.

Malcolm Wheatley is a freelance writer.

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