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Election Night in Canada

NO one would accuse American journalism of paying too much attention to Canada. The coverage tends to be episodic and superficial, even when the issues affect the United States. So the real meaning of the recent election was pretty much lost on American readers.

On Oct. 25, the governing Progressive Conservative Party was reduced from more than 150 seats in the House of Commons to a mere two. Regional parties emerged in Quebec and the Canadian West.

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American coverage suggested two results. First, that Canada was more divided politically. It was widely reported that Quebec was more likely to separate. Second, American commentators reflected that the North American Free Trade Agreement was greatly imperiled. Neither of these generalizations is true.

In fact, Canada is stronger and more united today precisely because it has undergone political renewal. The country has repudiated a contemptible Conservative government after years of misrule by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and has given a clear mandate to the Liberal party under the new prime minister, Jean Chretien. He has a comfortable majority of 178 seats in the 295-seat House of Commons.

The Liberal Party (LP) is Canada's traditional governing party. In their 125-year history, the Liberals have produced such legendary prime ministers as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, William Lyon Mackenzie King (who served longer than Franklin Roosevelt), Lester Pearson, and Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

The Oct. 25 Liberal victory was national in scope. It included a clean sweep of the Maritime provinces and a respectable showing in Montreal. The LP won 98 out of 99 seats in Ontario. It garnered impressive margins in Manitoba, made a good performance in Saskatchewan, and gained numerous seats in the key Western cities of Edmonton and Vancouver. Once again led by a French-speaking Quebecker, the Liberals hold out the promise of a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. They promise to preserve and expand Canada's elaborate social welfare programs. One victorious candidate, John English, summed up the election as, ``basically a reassertion of the country's historically distinctive political culture. Mulroney is gone, and Canada is reverting to type.''

Largely missing the nature of this remarkably decentralized country, the American papers and broadcasters repeated the myth that the rise of the Bloc Qucois (BQ), which won 54 seats in the House of Commons, presages the separation of Quebec from Canada. But this is hardly the case. The issue of Quebec's separation will be decided at the provincial rather than the federal level; and in Quebec the separatist cause has never enjoyed a majority at the polls or in public opinion. In a 1980 referendum, separatism was resoundingly defeated by French-Canadians. Political analysts say no more than one-third of Quebeckers would vote to separate.

Ironically, the BQ, led by a former Ambassador to France, Lucien Bouchard, will now emerge as the official opposition in the House of Commons. They will now have the obligation to behave constructively on a wide variety of the issues facing Canadians. This responsibility will be a new experience and a test for Quebec separatists.

In the West, the Reform Party faces the same situation. The party, which won 52 seats, mostly in Alberta and British Columbia, will go from protest to player. Led by Calgary-based Preston Manning, it advocates cutbacks in social programs, and has flirted with separating the West from Canada. Mr. Manning himself refuses to learn French.

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Neither of these two minority parties is national in its range or ambitions, and their staying power is doubted by close students of Canadian politics. Tory strategist Danny Lam said in an election night appraisal, ``Eventually the Conservative Party will rebuild, and when we come back, the regional parties will fade.''

HE other American misreading of the Canadian election results is that the new government will be anti-NAFTA. While the Liberals were against free trade in the 1988 election, they now regard it as simply one aspect of a more fundamental instinct of economic nationalism.

Even if NAFTA is unpopular, Mr. Chretien is too canny a politician to be scapegoated for the fate of NAFTA. Finance Minister and key adviser Paul Martin of Montreal, and other mambers of the Cabinet sworn in on Nov. 4, are essentially pragmatic. The Chretien government will take a pass on the NAFTA struggle in the US, but after the issue is resolved, they will want action on other festering trade grievances.

US-Canadian trade is by far the world's largest exchange - much larger than the US trade with Japan. Canada's renewed assertiveness means that the era of a supine Canada is over. Mr. Mulroney had been viewed as the affable lackey of former US presidents Reagan and Bush, but this political mistake will not be repeated. The Liberals called for ``a mutually respectful relationship with the United States'' which explicitly eschews the role of ``camp-follower.''

The import of the election is clear. Canada is a country comfortable enough with strong state authority to hand over decisive power to the LP, probably for many years. Yet it remains tolerant of regional differences and gives them full political expression; confident enough in its core political values of multiculturalism and bilingualism to indulge minority dissent of a type that in other societies might seem treasonable; generous to a fault, with a renewed commitment to the social welfare state for which it is justly famous abroad; eager for good relations with the US, but determined not to appear in the least degree servile. This is what Canadians voted for on Oct. 25 in avalanche proportions. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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