While the idea of an independent Quebec is troubling all of Canada, the prospect is especially worrisome to the Maritime Provinces, whose people fear even greater isolation from the rest of the country.
Because of their remoteness, on Canada's eastern coast, the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland-Labrador traditionally have been more vulnerable to economic ups and downs than other provinces.
They never fully shared in Canada's boom periods and now that the countryhs economy is ailing, unemployment in the Maritimes is relatively much higher.
When people here talk about a separate Quebec, they see the Maritimes becoming another Bangladesh. It was the creation of an independent India that split Pakistan into two wings. The eastern wing, which was hardly viable economically, eventually became the independent country of Bangladesh.
The four economy is dominated not by business but by government.
In recent years, as the Maritimes sought to revitalize their old-fashioned economy, they have become increasingly dependent on federal assistance. In 1976, for example, Ottawa transfered $1.3 billion to the four provinces, making federal grants their most important source of income (and almost equaling revenue from all other sources.)
Moreover, one of the provinces, New Brunswick, has a substantial French-speaking community amounting to one-third of its total population. There are growing indications that the Acadians, as New Brunswickhs French speaking citizens are called, may seek home rule in the future.
"We don't want to become a Bangladesh of North America," said Don Jamieson, Newfoundland's leading politician government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
He and other politicians from Ottawa have been touring the Maritimes regularly this spring to talk about national unity, the economy and other issues in the May 22 federal elections.
Ironically, Jamieson was the leading ant-Canada politican in Newfoundland-Labrador three decades ago when the people of what was then a British colony voted by an extremely narrow margin to join the Canadian federation.
He was wrong in 1949, Jamieson kept reminding a Liberal rally in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, the other night. 'I was younger then and we were concerned about losing our identity. But that didn't happen and we all know how beneficial the confederation has been.
While the rich western provinces have fought against a strong federal government in Ottawa, the Maritimes have benefited from Ottawa's rgulatory and fiscal authority.
The four provinces, whose combined population is about 2.2 million, have experienced a similar social and economic development. Their economies are based largely on fishing, mining and forestry. More than 90 percent of the population is of English stock and are deeply rooted in the region, aunlike the rest of English Canada.
The regions traditional trade patterns lead southward to the United States, although there has been an effort during the past two decades to develop more intensive economic ties with the rest of Canada.
This new economic pattern has meant that the Maritimes had to reroute their trade and resources through Quebec, a move that many people here are now regretting.
Just how profoundly national unity and economy are intertwined in this region can be seen in the experience of Newfoundland, the largest of the four provinces. It includes 43,000 square miles of the island and 110,000 square miles of Labrador peninsula.
Newfoundland produces 30 million tons of iron ore per year, or 50 percent of Canada's total production, at the two Labrador mines near Wabush. Roughly 90 percent of the total is exported to the United States via the seaport of Seven Islands in Quebec.
The Quebec port not only is getting Newfoundland traffic but refining facilities also are located there.
This, according to W. Duncan Sharpe, a Newfoundland businessman, "not only creates employment in Quebec and contributes to our employment, but also raises questions of what would happen should Quebec become independent and impose tariffs on our goods."
Another major Newfoundland project, the Churchill Falls hydroelectric facility, which is one of the largest in the world, involves transport of energy through Quebec under an agreement signed by the two provinces in the 1960s.
The Newfoundlandres now claim that the 25-year agreement was signed at a time when electricity was cheap and that Quebec is now "tollgating" electricity from Churchill Falls and selling it at higher prices to New York.
"The Newfoundlanders got fleeced and they are now squealing," Jamieson said, discussing the Churchill Falls deal.
If Quebec decides to separate, officials say, Newfoundland could turn off that power or renegotiate the contract. They said that technology is now being developed to transport electricity under water and circumvent Quebec.
Here in Goose Bay, which is located in an area carrying the incongruous name of the Happy Valley, the unemployment rate stands at 23 percent and most of those with jobs are working for the government.
The town of 8,000 was the spinoff of an American Air Force base built here during World War II. The base was closed last year, long after it had outlived its usefulness.
Maxine Hampton, a native of Corner Brook on Newfoundland Island who is a secretary in a province office here says,"Since the Americans left, Gooose Bay economy has suffered. Two out of three bowling alleys have closed down. We use to be able to have a nice steak dinner for $5 but not more."
Hampton and her husband, who also works for the government, get a $4,000 annual "northern" allowance, subsidized housing, free oil and electricity and "other perks" while they are serving in Goose Bay.
In order to fight unemployment, the federal government plans to put $40 million into a defunct mill to convert it to production of newsprint. It will take at least a year before the plant becomes operational.
Politicians campaigning here in recent weeks have all stressed that only a strong federal government can muster resources to assist the Maritimes. In Newfoundland, Trudeau and Jamieson also played upon public fears that the Quebec separatists may seek a change in the boundary dividing Quebec and the Labrador part of the province.
Quebec Premier Rene Levesque has indicated publicly that his government may have claims on parts of Labrador and that it might want to renegotiate the boundary, which was set by the British. An old Quebec-New-foundland boundary dispute had been settled by a British high court.
"We are not an excitable kind of people," said Peter Meerburg, national editor of the Halifax (N.S.) Chronicle-Herald.
"But the prosect of Quebec separation weighs heavily on our minds. We don't believe Quebec will decide to go it alone. The Maritimes grew with north-south trade flows, there's a great affinity with New England. But we just don't know what's going to happen and that's why there is a feeling of malaise." CAPTION: Map, no caption, By Dave Cook-The Washington Post