As Quebec voters prepare for an anticipated fall election on whether to separate from Canada, the rest of the country is sending a new message to would-be separatists: Love it or leave it.
In a reversal of 30 years of Canadian popular sentiment and public policy, Quebeckers are being told not to count on any more compromises or concessions in exchange for staying in the country and to expect tough negotiations on the terms of separation if they vote to depart.The message is coming most loudly and clearly from here in Western Canada, where resentment of the national obsession with Quebec is strongest.
"People say we've tried to make the country a better place for Quebec and . . . the question now is, `Are you in or are you out?' " said Stephen Harper, a member of parliament from Calgary.
"It's time (for Quebec) to put up or shut up," adds Dave Rutherford, a popular Calgary radio talk-show host whose conservative opinions warm the airwaves daily.
Such attitudes - and polls indicate they are widespread in most of Canada - could have a profound and unpredictable impact on the Quebec referendum, now expected in October or November.
Some argue that hard-line tactics could backfire by inflaming nationalist feelings in Canada's only French-speaking province and driving more voters to the cause of independence. That does not seem to be happening yet, and in any case the prevailing attitude seems to be that it is worth the risk to resolve the national unity issue once and for all.
"There's no doubt in my mind that one reason Canada hasn't been able to successfully grapple with its financial problems and other issues is due to the threat of separation," said Harper.
A few even contend Canada would be better off without Quebec. David Bercuson and Barry Cooper, two University of Calgary professors, argued in Canadian Business magazine last year that "Quebec and Canada must go their own ways. Although the short-term costs will be high, the longer-term costs of Quebec's staying in Canada, but with bags forever packed and one foot always out the door, promise to be literally without limits."
The newest wrinkle in the separatists' game plan is to couple Quebec independence with an offer of continued economic association with what would be left of Canada in an arrangement modeled on the European Union. But Canadians outside Quebec have no enthusiasm for such a plan, and it has only reinforced the hard-line voices from the West.
Polls in Quebec continue to show that support for independence - even when linked to economic association with Canada - hovers between 42 percent and 45 percent of the electorate, largely unchanged since last spring.