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CANADA WITHOUT QUEBEC?

Call off the pallbearers! Cancel the eulogy! Though Canada is doing its best to kill itself, it isn't dead yet.

Instead, summon the ambulance and head for the hospital. The patient is suffering from some self-inflicted wounds that could take many years to heal. Let's hope the healing can be accomplished without the amputation of Quebec.Anyway, the long-feared damage was confirmed this weekend when Manitoba and Newfoundland refused to go along with an agreement that would have met Quebec's main conditions for signing Canada's 1982 Constitution. The most important of its provisions was a clause recognizing French-speaking Quebec as a "distinct society."

The collapse of this agreement is fueling fears that separatist sentiment in Quebec may lead to its secession from Canada.

But the fears seem exaggerated despite polls showing that 60 percent of Quebec's population would favor political independence from Canada if all other provinces refused to recognize its distinct status.

After all, Quebec officials were careful not to make any threats of secession or other future action during the long debate over the failed agreement. Ten years ago, the voters of Quebec rejected a referendum that proposed talks with the federal government on political autonomy for their province.

Moreover, many Canadians are tired of this long debate. Besides, even if Quebec eventually decides to go its own way, such a decision would not necessarily lead to its incorporation into the United States. Instead, Quebec could prefer a hybrid option that would make it independent of, but still "associated" with, Canada.

The fact is that the loss of Quebec would hurt Canada. Quebec's 6.5 million inhabitants constitute a quarter of Canada's population. Montreal is Canada's second largest city. Quebec's economy is an integral part of the Canadian economy, and the province is the country's largest. No wonder that the long debate over the failed agreement hurt foreign investment and the Canadian dollar by raising fears about Canada's stability.

This situation should give Quebec plenty of leverage in any future discussions with the rest of the country. The challenge now is to avoid the temptation to consider the failure of the proposed agreement on Quebec as irreparable and to keep talking.