Canadians pretty well have to fire live ammunition across the bow of a rogue Spanish fishing trawler to get the world to notice them these days. The largely peaceful manner in which Canadians debate their politics tends to keep them off the world’s news pages and television screens. There has always been a scattered cottage industry of Canadian specialists who pop up in strange places— Zulu politicians presenting a list of constitutional demands to the South African government and citing the inspiration of the Meech Lake accord, for example. But Quebec’s second concerted drive for independence produced only yawns at first. Even in France, news coverage of Lucien Bouchard’s 1994 visit to Paris was sparse, and one of his aides acknowledged that the separatists’ old Gaullist allies were not terribly excited about the prospect of another referendum round.
That all changed with last week’s Cliffhanger result. Suddenly,
politicians in places as far off as Tasmania
and Taiwan were talk-
ing about the lessons
to be learned from
Canada’s brush with breakup. Of course, the conclusions depended on the political prism of the beholder. Flemish nationalists, whose independence platform is strongly anti-immigrant, were sympathetic to Jacques Parizeau’s sulphurous comments about Quebec’s “ethnic” voters. The Taipei-based China Times newspaper pointed out that Ottawa “did not exert military intimidation on Quebec, but the Chinese Communists are ready to use force to crush Taiwan’s pro-independence movement anytime.” And
Americans seeking to enshrine English as their country’s officia language in the face of a growing Spanish-speaking population drew dire implications about the perils of bilingualism. “Where Canada’s two official languages threaten to tear the nation apart. English brings America together,” Republican Representative Randy Cunningham said during a Capitol Hill debate.
Just how the same set of numbers could produce such divergenl opinions was best demonstrated in Scotland. The Scottish nationalist movement is enjoying a popularity surge, and Britain’s opposition Labour Party, which appears likely to form the next government, has
Scottish assembly to as suage nationalist feel ings. The governinç Tories argued that the Quebec experience showed that any devolution of power to Scotlanc would simply encourage
nationalists to push for independence. Labour politicians countered that Scottish separatism would be deterred by the kind of economic uncertainty that dogged Quebec’s Yes forces. And Alex Salmond, leader of the independence-minded Scottish National Party, noted that “fully-fledged federalism can barely contain Quebec within Canada,” and therefore would never be enough to satisfy Scots.
The reaction to the vote in the capitals of Canada’s major allies, Washington and London, was also predictable: palpable relief and a reiteration of their longstanding support for a united Canada. Currency traders continued to employ snap judgments in their handling of Canadian dollars and bonds: up on news of the No win; down when the reality of the daunting challenge ahead sunk in; up again on hearing that Bouchard might quit politics. It was enough to leave federalists pining for the days when Catalan television was not running specials on the pros and cons of Quebec independence, when American networks were not broadcasting live from Montreal, and Canada was blissfully boring and ignored.
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