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O-O-O-Oh Canada

MUCH of the world has a vision of Canada. And it isn't one of "separate solitudes" or ethnic bitterness. Canada, to outsiders, is the epitome of the good neighbor, the civilized society, most steadfast of UN peacekeepers, dual-tongued like some giant Switzerland, husbander of scenic grandeur. It's a less raucous version of the 800-pound gorilla to the south.

But the outside world is pressing in on Canada, changing the vision. Immigrants, as well as perceived neglect by English-speaking Canadians, stoked the fears that led to Quebec's near-secession vote Oct. 30. Even French-speaking immigrants from Vietnam or Haiti dilute the province's cherished more-Gallic-than-France traditions.

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Competitors in the larger world are also pressing in on Canada's economy. Like Sweden, it can no longer afford the full cost of its welfare state if it is to compete effectively in the world that admires it. That means it must tighten the federal belt - following the lead of Alberta's budget-cutting - if it is to recover lost jobs and provide growth like that of the US - to which its economy is tied more firmly than ever.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien's federal government must perform contradictory tough jobs simultaneously: (1) Tighten the fiscal belt, while (2) not cutting Quebec's subsidies and raising unemployment. Last-minute outpourings of affection will not again placate the Quebecois' desire to recover something of the equal-twin birthright they lost in the constitutional revision of 1982 that gave all provinces equal voice in federal government. But the other nine provinces are no more likely now than in 1987 or 1992 to give the 49.6 percent of Quebeckers who voted "oui" to secession as much as they want.

Mr. Chretien echoed a famous line of France's Charles de Gaulle when he said "I have understood you" and pledged reconciliation with the separatist leaders of his home province. De Gaulle used those words to placate, but later desert, French settlers in Algeria. If Chretien is not to desert his fellow Quebeckers, but still remain true to the united Canada he so deeply believes in, he will have to find concrete ways to ensure that the "distinct society" of French-Canadians is preserved without heavier financial unfairness to other provinces. Tall order.

He cannot halt the tide of talented (and often wealth-investing) immigrants that Canada has welcomed. The 30,000 Hong Kong millionaires living in Toronto are becoming as Canadian as hockey and sockeye salmon. But Ottawa can take steps to reinforce the "distinct society's" birthright. Logical moves are: devolution of more power to Quebec (and other provinces) plus more attention to French culture.

In the end, though, the forces of historic change will remold Canada as surely as they are remolding America's melting pot and the French and British roles in Europe. To deal with those changes, all Canadians will have to live up to their well-deserved reputation for tolerance.

Chretien's tough jobs: tighten Canada's belt, but don't cut Quebec's subsidies.

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