"See that?" my companion, a Candanian professional man, asked. "It's the world's largest unfinished Holiday Inn." We proceeded a bit farther when he pointed out another building, this one the headquarters of one of Canada's largest financial institutions, and repeated the rumor that it was planning to change its name and move to Toronto.
The impression a visitor get from talking to members of the non-French community here is of a boom town in reverse. The conviction is growing that not only will Quebec secede from the Canadian union but also that the emergent state won't be a too terribly hospitable one for those whose background isn't French.
The process which seems to be transpiring is hard for us non-Canadians to understand. The latest public opinion polls do not show that anything like a majortiy of Quebecois desire to see their province become an independent state; the major French mass media are anything but rapidly separatist and yet many, many Canadians assume that there either will be separation or changes in fundamental constitutional law that will make Quebec all but in name a nation of its own.
The immediate effect of the coming to power in Montreal of the Parti Quebecois has been to strengthen the national position of the anti-separatist liberals of Prime Minister Trudeau in Ottawa. He is far and away his country's most popular politician, but he would seem to have a two-fold problem: that separatism appears to be the future because it so dominates the spirit of French youth, and the United States we are prone to make the mistake of thinking that there are no differences when in fact there are huge ones. The Civil War made the United States like the Mafia - an organization that once you join you can't leave; Canada, on the other hand, isn't committed to resolving such a dispute with force.
Indeed if there is any danger of force, it may come from our side of the border. When troubles came to our other two nearest neighbors, Cuba and Mexico, we were unable to refrain from making idiots out of ourselves by intervening with guns and soldiers. If the hysteria seizes us once again, we might make the same error in Canada. There are already Americans talking aboiut a French Cuba located right across from us on the shores of Lake Champlain, and never mind that the issue of separatism has yet to be decided and that, if is decided in favor of split, no one can guess what might be the politics of La Nouvelle France or whatever this new nation may come to call itself.
The situation in Quebec is one worthy of study by Americans who've had ethnic group difficulties aplenty. At the risk of uttering heresy, Quebec teaches us that it may be just as well Alex Haley had to work so hard to discover his roots. The Quebecois has no scuh problem. He or she is a fully participating member of an ancient, rich and vital French civilization: you can go from kindergarden through your Ph.D. at the university in Canada without once ever having to attend a class where other than French is spoken.
Where people are in such full command of their roots, can nationhood be far behinf? Millions of American immigrants were illiterate peasants who participated in the culture, traditions and civilizations of their mother countries on such a rudimentary level their children could be effectively "Americanized? by such a primitive instrument as the public school system.
Most of the countries around the world where ethnic groups have not been homogenized are in trouble: Canada, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England, Belgium, Spain, Yugoslavia, Russia, Cyprus, Israel and more in the Far East. It wasn't all to the bad that the Kunta Kintes were made into Tobys and the Stanislas into Stans, the Giuseppes into Joes and the Brunhildes into Tammys.
If Canada does split or becomes a much more decentralized federation, that may be a forward looking event. The modern, centralized state is in obvious trouble. Look at the low opinion we Americans have of our own centralized government's capacity to get anything done right. Perhaps it will be Canada's future to show the world how to build and operate an effective modern, decentralized state.
But however this great drama unfolds to the north of us, it will behoove us to stay cool, humble, attentive and friendly.