Forecasting the outcome of an election is a chancy business and few Canadian elections have been more unpredictable than the one that will take place on May 22. On the one hand, there is the increasing unpopularity throughout the country of the brilliant, able and arrogant Liberal prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. On the other, there is the tepid and doubting support that the untried, uninspiring, unworldly and unlearned leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Joseph Clark, has been able to rally behind him. Had Robert Stanfield, the wise, experienced, highly intelligent leader of the PCs not stepped down after his failure to win the country in the last federal election, the outcome on May 22 would scarcely be in doubt. Trudeau's national bilingual policy together with his increasingly abrasive manner and the state of the economy - always and unjustly blamed on the party in power - would have almost certainly enabled Stanfield to defeat the Liberals decisively.

As it is, the most likely outcome will be either a Liberal party returned with a slight majority or a minority Liberal government kept in power with the support of Edward Broadbent's New Democratic Party (the NDP, the Canadian equivalent of the British Labor Party). This would mean a leaning to the left on the part of the new liberal administration. There is a possibility that Joe Clark's PCs might be returned as a minority government or a government with a slight majority. But it is improbable that Ed Broadbent would lend his support to such an administration. The country would be in for another federal election in a very short time.

The outcome of the election, however, doesn't matter very much. As things stand at present there seems to be nothing to stop the disintegration of the country. Put another way, there has yet to come forward in Canada a man or woman who can give the country a reason for being except a misleading anti-Americanism (misleading because anti-Americanism is a phenomenon of the intellectuals, not of the average Canadian), a wistful loyalty on the part of an older generation of English-speaking Canadians to a British Empire that has long since passed into history, a virulent and thoughtless anti-Frenchism on the part of perhaps a majority of English Canadians and a consequent determination on the part of the intellectually and politically most lively Quebecois to achieve independence.

Canada came into existence in 1867 for three reasons. The three reasons rested upon a genuine distrust of American democracy as opposed to British constitutionalism. They were, first, defense. Canada was afraid of American annexation. As late as 1896 Theodore Roosevelt said: "If I were asked what the greatest boon I could confer on this nation was, I should answer an immediate war on Great Britain for the conquest of Canada. . . I will do my very best to bring about the day." The Quebec French Catholics did not like the idea of being forcibly clutched to the bosom of the protestant American union. English Canada was founded by the 35,000 loyalists who had backed the defeated side in the Revolutionary War and had settled along the shores of Lake Ontario. They feared the Americans and disliked intensely American political and social institutions. Concern about American annexation lasted in to the 20th century.

The second reason for confederation was economic. If British Northe America was to be united and strong against a possible American attack it must have a stable and expanding mixed economy. This meant tariffs to support infant industries in Ontario and Quebec against American competition. This policy was from the beginning a source of irritation to the farmers of the praries and to the producers of lumber, fish and minerals in British Columbia. They had to compete in a world market with their raw materials while the tariff required them to buy their machinery and other manufactured goods in a protected eastern market.

The third reason for confederation, or why it kept together for so long without serious dissension, was the growing might of the British Empire.Canadians could not compete with the dynamism and creativity of the United States but they could legitimately take pride in their membership in the greatest empire since the fall of Rome, the empire on which the sun never set. There was a greater Britain beyond the seas and Canada was part of it.Canada stood by Great Britain in the Great War of 1914-18 and in the Hitler War of 1939-45.

Canada's probable disintegration in the next few years is due to the fact that the three reasons for Canada coming together in the first place are no longer operative. Washington hasn't the slightest intention of taking over Canada by force of arms. Second, the Canadian and American economies are now so closely interwoven that the economic reasons for Canada's independence become more and more illusory. Finally, the British Empire no longer exists. It has joined the ranks of those other great empires that have passed into history. The result is that Canada is in disarray.

The first province to express discontent has been, not surprisingly, Quebec. Quebec participated least in the three reasons for Canadian union. Quebec's dislike of the United States was passive rather than active. Quebec's share in the benefits of Canadian economic development was very small. The reasons for this are complex. They include inadequate educational preparation of the people by the Church for a role in an industrial society and a resulting exploitation of a passive labor force by English-Canadian industrialist. They also include a real anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiment in English Canada. Then, too, the French could hardly be expected to rejoice in the triumph of a British imperialism of which they had been one of the first victims.

As for the other provinces, without the empire, without a unifying ideology, without a charter myth such as is provided in this country by the Declaration of Independence, they are retreating into regionalism and indifference. All three parties have failed to address these fundamental issues upon which the survival of the country depends. What's more, their leaders don't even seem to be aware that such issues exist.

The elections about to take place are irrelevant because they are not about important matters. Regardless of who wins, Quebec will in due course secede. When that happens the English provinces, which have for generations been blaming disunity on "the French," will find they have little in common themselves. Pessimistic? No. It will be only in this arduous fashion that Canada will find out what she is as distinct from the United States and will forge a new constitution to express in a positive way that too-long obscured reality.