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Summertime ... and The Livin' Is ... Edgy

Canada frets over hostage troops, unemployment, hockey woes, and appalling murder case

SUMMER has returned to this chilly land, and after a long, cool, non-spring, no true Canadian is going to waste any personal time indoors.

Warm temperatures this week drew flocks of sun bathers and volleyball players out to the boardwalk in the east-Toronto community known as "the Beaches." But only a few were seen dipping their toes into Lake Ontario, which still tingles like melt from the last ice age.

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And yet beneath Canadians' rejoicing at summer, a flotsam of concerns have tainted this typically carefree season.

More than 40 of Canada's peacekeeping troops in Bosnia were taken hostage by Serbian forces last week. At least a dozen were still being held at this writing. Others could be released soon. But, the drama has provoked a soul-searching debate in Parliament, which concluded last week that Canadian forces will stay in Bosnia - for the time being. Canadian duty and pride are at stake, says Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Most Canadians tend to agree with him. Mr. Chretien is currently the most popular prime minister the country has had since John Diefenbaker in the early 1960s. Chretien has led with a low-key, populist style, alternately sparring with Quebec separatists and then ignoring them, sniping at US trade policies, then warmly welcoming President Clinton during his snowy February visit to Ottawa.

Chretien's approach seems to mirror the ambivalence many Canadians feel about the direction their country is headed. He has promised tougher gun control to curb violence - but Canadian gun owners en masse are taking pot shots at his plan to register all the nation's guns.

Chretien logic on this point is typically homespun and understandable to the majority of Canadians:

If people accept the need to get a drivers' license and register their car, why not their guns?

Some wonder how long his popularity will last if the economy falters. Even during last year's robust economic growth, the national unemployment rate stayed above 9 percent. Now the United States economy, Canada's largest export market, is slowing. The Canadian economy is contracting. And some economists say another recession is possible.

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Canadians tightening their belts for an economic storm can always take solace that they'll be able to flick on the television and watch their hometown hockey team. Or can they? Even this cultural icon is crumbling.

The strike-shortened season this year was bad enough. Now one of Canada's beloved teams - the Quebec Nordiques - has been sold to Denver and the Winnipeg Jets could soon be headed south too. Canadians are miffed that National Hockey League owners are opting for big dollars in big markets "south of the border" rather than the communities that have nurtured them.

During the summer swelter, Americans will have the O.J. Simpson trial. Canadians have their own murder "trial of the century" involving the sex-slayings of two young girls allegedly by a clean-cut former accountant. But most Canadians, rather than being entertained as with the O.J. trial, are horrified. The trial of Paul Bernardo has included graphic videotaped evidence disquieting even to seasoned crime reporters.

Fortunately, there have been the usual summer rituals to keep Canadians from bogging down on crime, politics, and Bosnia. Gardeners are out in force, clogging some residential streets for blocks as they vie for parking spaces near urban garden centers. Rollerbladers and bicyclists glide alongside city traffic. Throngs board the ferries for the Toronto Islands.

News reports that Quebec's separatists are trying desperately to figure out how to secede from Canada this fall draw yawns - for now. Like most everyone else in Canada, the majority of Quebeckers shun summer politics, preferring instead to pack a picnic basket.

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