As Quebec faces separatist vote, the rest of Canada says: 'Love it or leave it'

CALGRY, ALBERTA — CALGARY, Alberta -- As Quebec voters prepare for an anticipated autumn vote 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, Quebecers 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 from 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.


Such attitudes -- and polls indicate that 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.

A few even contend that 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."

As many Westerners see it, Canada has coddled Quebec for 30 years -- often at their expense -- in an effort to keep it from bolting the country.

French was declared an official national language on a par with English; Quebec benefits from a quota system for government jobs and contracts; Canadians pay inflated prices for milk mainly to protect Quebec dairy farmers; millions of tax dollars have been transferred out of prosperous Western provinces into poorer Quebec as "equalization payments."

All of this was done in the cause of protecting Quebec's language and culture within the Canadian nation. And yet the separatists remain and even have grown stronger.

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.