THE CANADIAN ELECTIONS leave the country more polarized than ever in its politics, but not necessarily closer to breaking up. The Liberals, the party of the outgoing prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, swept one province, Quebec. Joe Clark's Conservatives swept nearly everywhere else. That reduces one of the major parties to a merely regional base, and gives the country a new prime minister, in Mr. Clark, who is less knowledgeable about French Canada and less committed to accommodation than his predecessor. On the face of it, the distance between French and English Canada seems to have widened dangerously.
But perhaps that's too simple a picture. The votein Quebec was not separatist; in Quebec, the Liberals are the opposition to separation. A good many French Canadians have come to feel in recent years that they might negotiate more profitably with an English Canadian prime minister less constrained by old convictions and passions than Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau had been showing an increasing rigidity of view and intolerance of disagreement. It's possible that Mr. Clark will find it easier to converse with French Canada precisely because he does not bear so many scars of earlier battles.
After Mr. Clark, the second most important political figure in Canada now is Claude Ryan, the leader of the Quebec Liberals. As the spokesman, in effect, for French Canada, he has an opportunity to put the constitutional question of Quebec in new terms for the new government. But that opportunity won't last long. The separatists are busy and, for that matter, Mr. Clark and his Conservatives have less than an absolute majority in Parliament. Minority governments are common in Canadian practice, but they generally last only a year or two.
Are there implications for our own politics? Over the past generation politicians in all the industrial countries have persuaded voters that governments can provide stable prosperity. Ironically, as people have come to take that proposition for granted, rising international influences have made it less and less true. A country like Canada, widely involved in world commerce, can hardly shelter itself from the effects of worldwide inflation and recession. Here in Washington, as officials ponder the lines at filling stations, they are gloomily aware that not even the vast economy of the United States is immune to troubles that started abroad.