Clinton's appeal for unity in Canada stuns supporters, foes of Quebec independence; U.S. presidents usually sidestep the issue


OTTAWA -- Canadians on both sides of the nation's deep linguistic divide say they were stunned by President Clinton's unexpectedly passionate appeal here for national unity and federalism.

Clinton traveled to the flash point of separatism in North America and, without mentioning Quebec nationalism, argued Friday that "the United States and Canada are among the most fortunate countries in the world because we have such diversity."

If every major "racial and ethnic and religious group" won independence, "we might have 800 countries in the world and have a very difficult time having a functioning economy," Clinton said, addressing a forum on federalism that earlier in the week had become a platform for complaints by Quebec separatists. "Maybe we would have 8,000 -- how low can you go?

"The great irony of the turning of the millennium is that we have more modern options for technology and economic advance than ever before, but our major threat is the most primitive human failing -- the fear of the other," he said at Mont-Tremblant, north of Montreal.

"We must think of how we will live after the shooting stops, after the smoke clears, over the long run," the president said. National independence, he warned, is often "a questionable assertion in a global economy where cooperation pays greater benefits in every area than destructive competition."

U.S. leaders traditionally sidestep the hornet's nest of the separatist aspirations of many Quebecers, the central political quandary of Canada for the last three decades. In turn, Canadians put extraordinary weight on the words of the president of the United States, the nation that dominates Canada's foreign trade and investment.

Canada's widely read weekend papers, English and French, viewed the speech as a strong argument for Quebec's remaining inside Canada.

Clinton made "a powerful argument in favor of federalism, which he describes as the political regime of the future," Vincent Marissal wrote in La Presse, a Montreal daily that bills itself as the largest-circulation French newspaper of the Americas. "But his message on the merits of federalism went much further, questioning even the usefulness of the nationalist projects in the era of globalization."

The English-speaking media were less restrained.

The Montreal Gazette, one of only two English-language daily newspapers in Quebec, proclaimed, "U.S. President Bill Clinton ran up the federalist flag."

The National Post, a conservative newspaper, hailed Clinton's "historic speech" with a banner headline, "Clinton Takes a Swing at Separatists."

The Globe and Mail, Canada's other nationally circulated newspaper, declared, "Clinton's speech was the most powerful and subtle argument in favor of the federal idea heard in Quebec in years."

Quebec separatists sought to make the best of the speech, noting that Clinton had praised the European Union, a relationship they see as a model for future ties between an independent Quebec and "English Canada." Separatists also noted that after the speech Clinton met with Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, the first such meeting between a U.S. president and a separatist premier.

But Clinton did not allow photographs, kept the meeting to 15 minutes, and then went to a photo opportunity and golf with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Pub Date: 10/10/99

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