- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2000

Stuart Keate, the late Canadian newspaper publisher, once said: "In any world menu, Canada must be considered the vichyssoise of nations it's cold, half-French and difficult to stir."

Were Quebec's threats to secede from Canada ever to become reality, Mr. Keate's witticism would be passe. But since the likelihood of Quebec secession dims with each passing day, the durability of Mr. Keate's words is assured.

Last month, Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien met with French President Chirac and Premier Lionel Jospin ostensibly about thorny trade matters between the two countries, e.g., Canada imports $100 million of French wine while France imports gosh $100,000 of Canadian wines.

Most likely Mr. Chretien also discussed the breakup of Canada that France would love to see happen. Quebec's government has, with France's permission, what could easily be considered its own "embassy" in Paris and France recognizes the controversial Louise Beaudoin, Quebec's culture minister, as Quebec's foreign minister. Quebec's attempts to engineer a similar arrangement in Washington have been frustrated by the Clinton administration.

Official French support of Quebec independence is an old story. President Charles de Gaulle endorsed Quebec separatism openly in 1967 when he raised his arms high during a speech in Montreal and intoned, "Vive le Quebec libre." Imagine President Chirac's reaction were Prime Minister Chretien publicly to endorse "Vive le Corse" Corsica's claim to independence from France.

Two referenda on secession have already been held by Quebec governments. Both were defeated, the last one in October 1995, by a tight margin. A third referendum, as promised by the ruling Parti Quebecois (PQ), is unlikely. Maclean's magazine recently reported that 68 percent of Quebecers oppose another referendum. And the PQ would not call for a popular vote on secession in the face of such opposition to another referendum.

But there are other reasons why Quebec separatism may be a thing of the past. I say this as a passionate Francophile and as one who has just returned from a research trip to Montreal and Quebec City. The French language, for whose dominance the PQ and its supporters have been fighting, is safe and sound for the immediate future. Between 80 percent to 85 percent of Quebec's population of 7.3 million people today speak French as their first language but large numbers of these same Quebecois, particularly in Montreal and Quebec City, also speak English, usually with a charming French lilt.

There has been another important change. Once there was apprehension among the dwindling Jewish population that the PQ numbered anti-Semites among its adherents. Mordecai Richler, Canada's outstanding novelist and a Montreal resident, once wrote that when the Quebecois pronounce their militant slogan "maitres chez nous," (masters in our own house) they don't include "the MacGregors and the Schwartzes." By the "MacGregors," Mr. Richler meant the large numbers of Protestants in Quebec and, of course, the "Schwartzes," meant the Jews. There is little question that today's PQ leadership is a dramatic change from the ethnocentricity of previous leaderships; after all, whether independent or not, they most assuredly are today "maitres chez nous."

When I asked Ms. Beaudoin about Mr. Richler's sardonic comment, she replied, with no self-consciousness, that one of her close friends is Shimon Peres, slated to be Israel's next president, who would be her host when she visits the country next month.

Something big has changed in Quebec under the leadership of Lucien Bouchard, married to a Californian. (He presides over the province's "Assemblee Nationale" not as premier, the usual Canadian title for a provincial head of government, but as prime minister.) While the survival of the French language and culture in this North American enclave is of tremendous importance, there are other demands of equal importance: how to live in the 2lst century, especially how to attract investment and venture capital. An impoverished French-speaking dominion is not what the PQ aspires to.

So the ethnic question, whether WASP or Jewish, is not the problem it once was. It is hard to believe the government of Quebec subsidizes Montreal's Jewish schools (to be precise, Lubavitch and Satmar Hassidic day schools) to the tune of half of their budgets so long as they teach 14 hours a week of French. The government also subsidizes Muslim schools (Shia and Sunni get equal treatment), Anglican schools and, of course, the vastly larger number of Catholic schools. Somehow separation of church and state isn't a serious problem in Quebec.

In a world of fractured nation-states Yugoslavia and Kosovo, Indonesia and Acheh, Russia and Chechnya, Spain and the Basques among others Canada, with Mr. Chretien, Canada's Quebecois prime minister, and Mr. Bouchard, the Quebec prime minister, may willingly or not, show the way to ethnic peace.

Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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