Despite assurances by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau that Quebec will never separate from Canada, a number of thoughtful Canadians are already discussing ways in which that could happen.
One such forecast, published last month in Toronto, outlines the possibility of violence and armed intervention by federal troops if Quebec voters approve separation and a peaceful transition of sovereign powers to the province cannot be accomplished.
Currie, Coopers and Lybrand Ltd., a leading management consulting firm published an assessment of Quebec's future that suggested that the crucial years for decision on the separatism issue will be 1980 to 1985.
During the period before a referendum on independence that has been promised by the separatist parti Quebecois government in Quebec, "We can expect intense maneuvering and propaganda from very direction," the report said. "As the campaign intensifies it will be difficult for the population to remain clam and objective. It will be difficult to complete the referendum period without incidents of violence in some form."
The report, based on confidential interviews with 53 to-level businessmen and government officials, outlines possible outcomes ranging from voter rejection of separatism to unilateral Quebec government action leading to armed federal intervention.
In one scenario, the report foresaw the United States, "nervous about the free passage of goods through the St. Lawrence Seaway," which is bounded on both sides by Quebec for more than 500 miles, exerting "political and economic pressure on both the Ottawa and Quebec governments."
"Dissidents, feeling that matters are moving too quickly or too slowly, will provoke and incident or cause an unintentional act leading to violence, with the intervention of federal troops to protect citizens and property," the report suggested.
The significance of the Currie, Coopers and Lybrand report seems not to be so much what it says but that it indicates government and business leaders are willing to think what had been the unthinkable.
The initial reaction in English-speaking Canada to the election victory of Rene Levesque and his Parti Quebecois in November was shocked disbelief. Then came intense activity aimed at convincing the French majority in Quebec that separation would be economic and political suicide.
Small national unity groups sprouted up across the country and are starting to focus their activities on academic and business seminars being organized around federalist themes.
In Alberta, an oil-rich western province, several prominent citizens recently organized a Unifled Canada movement and plan activities and a petition drive in western cities.
Mel Hurtig, an Alberta publisher, says most westerners want to keep Quebec in Canada.
"If Quebec goes, pressure will be on the Atlantic provinces to seek union with the United States. British Columbia and Alberta are apt to separate," Hurtig says. "The potential for violence in all this is substantial."
Hurtig, a former of the nationalist Committee for an Independent Canada, said, "if there were a stronger national spirit in Canada there would be less need for Quebec nationalism."
David Ablett, an editior of the Vancouver Sun, the largest paper on the west coast, recently told the Women's Canadian Club that the greatest danger to national unity was not from Levesque's separatists, but from westerners who are apathetic about Canada.
H. Ian MacDonald, president of York University in Toronto and former deputy treasurer of predominantly English-speaking Ontario, had called for a national conference to discuss "ways" of identifying and strengthening the present advantages of Canadian unity (and) ways of diminishing the present disadvantages or weaknesses which serve to undermine our system."
The task of preserving the nation should not be left to governments alone. MacDonald said. "Somehow we must insure that this debate takes place between individuals and among the people of Canada."
The Ontario provincial government took up MacDonald's proposal and announced that it would finance the conference, set for June.
Communications personality Marshall McLuhan, a professor at the University of Toronto, suggests the battle for the hearts and minds of Quebecois may already be lost because the separation of Quebec is already a cultural fact.
Quebec's separation happened psychologically a long time ago, McLuhan says, "but it's been delayed by all sorts of tactics and we'll continue to try to delay it with all the hardware we know to put into the breach."