The Editor's Page

Margaree in Nova Scotia is not a single community but a pepper-shake of hamlets on the western edge of Cape Breton Island. A beautiful place to visit, but no easy place for making a living. Livelihoods come mostly from farming, commercial fishing, summer tourism, and to a lesser degree the spending of the dudes who flog the lovely Margaree River in hopes of hooking a salmon on an artificial fly.

In four days there, spent alternately wading the Margaree (in vain) and chatting with or eavesdropping on natives, I heard talk of many problems. Unemployment on Cape Breton is approaching 15 percent, against a Canadian national average of 7.5 percent. Native fishermen are worried over the foreigners’ heavy take from the Atlantic fisheries. The locals are concerned over the alarming decline of the salmon sport fishery on the Margaree. I waited to hear someone mention the fact that a substantial part of the nation is threatening to tear itself loose from Canada. Nobody brought it up, so I had to ask.

“Are you bothered by Quebec’s threat to secede from the Canadian federation?”

Oh, that. Shrug of shoulders. Palms upward and a glance to the skies (sensational skies in Cape Breton — when it isn’t raining, misting, or threatening to rain or to mist). Oh, that.

“They’ll never pull out,” said an elderly grocer in Margaree Harbor. “Too many federal benefits they’d all lose—medical, child allowances, unemployment, and all that.”

“Would serve them right,” a fellow with an unmistakably Scottish name remarked. “But it wouldn’t be good for Canada, now, would it?”

Among those seated before the host’s log fire, only one, an engineer who lives upriver from Margaree Harbor, appeared much exercised. “If I were Trudeau,” he said, “I’d get Prime Minister Levesque on the phone in Montreal and I’d tell him to be in my office in Ottawa tomorrow at eleven sharp. And when he got there I’d tell him plump and plain that what he’s proposing to do is treason, that if this were wartime I’d have him hanged, but since it’s peacetime I’ll only put him in jail —unless he calls the whole thing off.”

This bit of bluster was untypical of what I heard in four days of introduction to a charming though troubled corner of North America. It became evident, however, that if Quebec separatism does not figure large in the casual conversations or dinner-table talk of Cape Breton, the fragility of Canadian nationhood is very much on people’s minds.

A Maple Leaf flag, I noted in more than 300 miles of crisscrossing Margaree River country, seems to fly from virtually every other house every day, a profusion uncharacteristic of even the Fourth of July in the United States. Surely this suggests a belief in nationhood. Yet the newspaper front pages are dominated by stories suggesting mistrust of or disappointment with the federal government and telling of bickering between provincial governments. On one September day alone, seven of the thirteen articles on the first page of the Halifax Chronicle Herald dealt directly with matters of “national unity” and/or “regional disparity.” And the front-page photograph featured members of a new national Task Force on Governmental Unity that was launching a nationwide tour in search of ideas for holding the country together. “If we are confused about what is,” a high school student testified before the task force on its first day, “then we will be confused about what should be.”

The concern over nationhood grows out of deep causes—economic imbalance, language and cultural differences, contrasting needs and desires of widely different regions, vulnerability to American will and whim. The deepest cause of all, of course, is the growing Quebec separatist movement. That alone is reason why, as Mordecai Richler, the distinguished Canadian writer, says in this month’s feature article, America’s important neighbor to the north “can no longer be taken for granted.”