TORONTO -- Two new radical parties, tapping voter anger in this month's Canadian general election campaign, are changing the face of this country's politics and again throwing into question Canada's long-term survival as a federation.
"This could be the greatest constitutional crisis in Canada's history, far greater than anything we have encountered to this point," said Conrad Winn, president of COMPAS Inc., an Ottawa-based polling organization.
"It's a watershed for sure, the breakdown of the old party system."
One of the new parties is intent on splitting Canada -- a valued U.S. ally and member of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Group of Seven world financial powers -- into sovereign French and English nations. The other advocates "a new federalism," transferring more power to the provinces.
Caught between these two devolutionary attitudes are the three main-line federalist parties: the governing Progressive Conservatives, the opposition Liberals, and the minority New Democrats.
They have dominated Canadian politics for decades, sharing only the central conviction that Canada should remain a united, bilingual and multicultural society. Now they are also jointly suffering a backlash from recession-weary voters who go to the polls Oct. 25 tired of "politics as usual" and desperate for new solutions.
The outcome could have a profound effect on the relationship between the United States and its single biggest trading partner. Any split would throw into question Canada's involvement in the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement and its current free trade agreement with the United States.
Rising from the east is the Bloc Quebecois, the latest in a long line of separatist movements in the French-speaking province. Its central platform is that federalism has failed the French minority and should be jettisoned for Quebec's sovereignty.
The polls show it will dominate the province, sending as many as 60 new members to the 295-seat federal parliament in Ottawa, where they are likely to be a constant irritant to a system they want to sunder. Even more threatening, the separatists could win power in Quebec's provincial elections next year, giving them the ability to push the issue to crisis point by calling a referendum on sovereignty.
The Bloc's leader, Lucien Bouchard, a former Conservative Cabinet member who quit to found his own party in 1990, said during a campaign debate with the other candidates that splitting Canada was "common sense."
"We have a vision of the country, but there is a country missing in that vision," he added. "That country is Quebec. . . . We are not trying to destroy Canada. It's already done."
Dale Thomson, professor of political science at McGill University, Montreal, questioned whether the threat of separation was real, noting that support in the province for breaking away had held fairly constant since the 1960s at less than 40 percent and that a previous 1980 referendum on sovereignty was rejected by French-speaking voters.
The upsurge of the Bloc was a protest vote against the current government in Ottawa.
Out of the west comes the Reform party, a right-wing pro-business group, formed in 1987.
It would prefer to change Canada with Quebec in it, but is prepared to do so without it.
The party's leader, Preston Manning, told a Toronto audience that if Quebec wanted independence, the federal government's job would simply be "to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs for the rest of Canada."
Mr. Manning speaks no French in what is officially a bilingual country, and his base of support is solidly Anglo-Canadian, originating in the prairie states but finding new strength in Ontario, the country's largest and richest province.
He has struck a chord with many Anglo-Canadians, tired of trying to accommodate the cultural "distinctness" of Quebec and resentful of official bilingualism.
The party wants a more democratic system, with an elected, not appointed, Senate, more frequent use of referendums and citizens' initiatives, less federal control, more power for the free market. It is the obvious alternative to the discredited Conservatives.
Mr. Manning's fresh approach to Canadian federalism and stances on other issues, such as eliminating the country's deficit in three years and reducing immigration, have swelled his support to 20 percent, high enough to suggest the Reformists could finish in second place if their current momentum continues to build.
For the established power brokers here, the emergence of the Bloc Quebecois and the Reform Party is particularly frustrating because they feed on forms of timely populism that are hard to counter.
They are not contaminated with the political viruses of the past: cronyism by the ruling Tories, welfare state excesses by the Liberals. They bring a different agenda to the political arena.
Their success seems likely to hurry the almost inevitable demise of Canada's first female prime minister, Kim Campbell, after a combative four-month tenure, which the polls now suggest will mark the end of nine years of her Tory party's control of government.
Both the Bloc and Reform advances are coming primarily at the Tories' expense.
The Tories, who have presided over a prolonged recession, appear to be sinking fast enough to face a humiliating third-place finish.
For Jean Chretien, the Quebecer who heads the Liberal Party and seems now to be on the threshold of power after a lifetime in politics, the newcomers' strength opens the ironic prospect of national leadership without popular support in his native province, possibly as the head of an unstable minority government.
For Audrey McLaughlin, overseeing an impressive decline of the New Democrats, it could doom her party, recently the third power in the land, to virtual federal oblivion. It is projected to win fewer than the 12 seats necessary for formal parliamentary recognition as a party, although it has a solid power base in the provinces, controlling three legislatures: in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia.
"We are witnessing the end of the Jurassic Age in Canadian politics," a reader wrote to The Toronto Sun. "Torysaurus, Liberalsaurus and NDPsaurus all have gorged too long on higher spending and higher taxes."
Angered by economy
With employment at 11.3 percent and a projected federal deficit this fiscal year of $33 billion, the economy is the central election issue.
"People are really angry with the federal government," said William Punnett, a retired union leader, campaigning for the NDP in the working-class Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. "They are really mad, and they are looking for an alternative."
Workers, he said, were angry over job losses attributed to free trade. Pensioners were angry over recent changes and new threats to their health plans. The young were angry over the lack of prospects. Provincial civil servants were angry over pay cuts.
Prime Minister Campbell is responding with an imperious political pugnacity reminiscent of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
She has accused Lucien Bouchard, the separatist, of wanting to break the nation; Preston Manning, the new federalist, of wanting to break its spirit; and Jean Chretien, the Liberal who has campaigned on a $6 billion job creation program, of planning to break the bank. If she goes down to defeat, it will not be without a fight.
If the new parties maintain their momentum, Canadians will likely elect what the media here has taken to calling an "Italian" or "pizza" Parliament, a short-lived minority government or an unstable coalition arrangement.
But whatever happens, Canada will never be the same politically after this election, according to Kenneth McRoberts, director of the Robarts Center for Canadian Studies at Toronto's York University.
"The threat [of separation] will be much more evident, and it will be clear the kind of strategies that have been followed to deal with the threat don't work," he said. "The accumulation of all this could, I think, push us into a real crisis."
POLITICAL SHAKE-UP IN CANADA
PARTIES.. .. . CURRENT NUMBER OF.. .. .PROJECTED NUMBER
.. .. .. .. .. SEATS IN PARLIAMENT .. .. .. .SEATS IN
.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..PARLIAMENT
CONSERVATIVES .. .. .. .152 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .35
LIBERALS .. .. .. .. .. .79 .. .. .. .. .. .. ...130
NEW DEMOCRATS .. .. .. ..43 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..5
REFORM PARTY .. .. .. .. .1 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .65
BLOC QUEBECOIS .. .. .. ..8 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .60
OTHERS .. .. .. .. .. .. .2 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..0
VACANCIES .. .. .. .. ...10 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..0
TOTAL.. .. .. .. .. .. .295.. .. .. .. .. .. ....295
*Projected by the Angus Reid poll for Southam News, published October 8, on the assumption that current sentiment holds firm until the October 25 election day.