A quarter of Canada’s 30 million people live in the province of Quebec. About five million are French Canadians, largely descended from hardy Norman peasants who came here 300 years ago. A quarter of the five million want to secede from Canada. A larger (but indeterminate) proportion favor as much autonomy as possible without risking a total break. One of the two main provincial parties, the Parti Québécois (PQ), at least rhetorically favors intimate “sovereignty” and held unsuccessful referenda to this end in 1980 and 1995. “Sovereignty” is something less than full independence; the latter word evokes much less popular support. Both referenda asked only for a “mandate to negotiate,” but they didn’t get one. Polls have always indicated a blunter question would fare much worse. Since about 40 percent of the province—including a million English speakers—consistently oppose sovereignty, support is unlikely to rise above 60 percent.

Many opponents of sovereignty have long argued that a real separation would inevitably lead to partitioning of the province, with Canada retaining several portions, including the huge northern territory and at least part of Montreal. The case was first fully presented in a 1980 book, Partition: The Price of Quebec Independence, by Lionel Albert and William Shaw. A 1996 poll by L’Actualité, the main Quebec newsmagazine, showed that over half the provincial population—including voters on both sides of the referendum question—thought a postsecession partition would be likely.

The Canadian constitution makes no provision for any kind of secession by vote. Three years ago, a Canadian Supreme Court test of Quebec’s referendum law garnered an opinion that a clear majority secessionist vote should launch a negotiation on Quebec’s departure, but left the questions of borders open. Federal Liberals have been quoting this ever since. The Conservative Alliance, while advocating decentralization, also endorses the Supreme Court position. Thus, there has been a profound change in both elite and majority Canadian opinion since 1995. Sovereignists have also become fatigued. Lucien Bouchard, the charismatic but cautious PQ premier from 1995 to January of this year, declared that there would not be another referendum until he saw “winning conditions.” His successor, Bernard Landry, is more abrasive and fond of fights with Ottawa, but shows no more inclination to enter a losing battle.

For most of Quebec’s history, French Canadian nationalism was chiefly a conservative, Catholic, anti-urban movement, quite hostile to radical separatism. The most celebrated nationalist historian, Robert Rumilly, immigrated from France in the 1920’s, seeking a blessed island of Latin Catholic Christianity. He lived long enough to see atheistic socialism and capitalist individualism descend on the province and died a bitter man, equally loathing Pierre Trudeau’s leftish federalism and the leftish PQ. The left presented itself as the wave of the future from 1965 to 1995 but ultimately alarmed the new francophone business and professional classes as much as it did their cautious ciders. The disintegration of the old Union Nationale Party left many conservative nationalists unhappily voting for the long-detested Liberal Rouges. As a UN party leader once remarked, the province is an eternal battleground of Dominicans and Jesuits.

“Partitionists” are also divided, uncertain whether separation is a real possibility, or, as Albert and Shaw argued, primarily a rhetorical threat serving to maintain a statist elite. The skeptics have a strong case: Two decades of polls, for example, consistently show that over one third of Francophones believe that a “sovereign” Quebec would still be “part of Canada” with almost as many believing it would still send MPs to Ottawa. Sovereignty is not like Irish republicanism, nor is partitionism like the “unionism” of Protestant Ulster. Analogies with the American South of 1860, while also tempting, are equally deceptive.

The border issue is further complicated by the Indians and Eskimos. When the French arrived in the 1600’s, they encountered a substantial settled population of Mohawks and other tribes. The Mohawks have been a terrific headache for “organic” nationalists ever since. They speak both French and English, and drift casually between Quebec, Ontario, and New York. Their ancestors adopted Protestantism because they disliked the strip farms that the Sulpicians vainly tried to impose on them. They also like owning guns.

In 1990, the natives blew up over a golf course they claimed interfered with their traditional land rights, blocking two of Montreal’s main bridges and carrying out a reserve territory occupation by an armed and masked “warrior society.” A raid by the SQ, the notoriously inept provincial police, led to a policeman’s death. Quebec asked the federal government to send in the Canadian Army to restore order, an embarrassing comment on sovereignist pretensions.

Unsympathetic natives also inhabit the Quebec North, ruled by the British from 1713 and never part of New France. It did not even become part of the province with the British conquest of 1760 or confederation in 1867. It was ceded by Canada to the province in 1898 and 1912, when no secessionist movement existed. Its rich hydroelectric resources keep thousands of French-Canadian Hydro-Quebec employees there temporarily, but the only permanent residents are a few thousand anti-sovereignist Cree and Eskimos.

The south shore of the St. Lawrence River was never part of New France; it was added to the province by the British. West Quebec, between Ottawa and Montreal, includes land first cultivated by English farmers over two centuries ago. Most of the area now has a francophone majority, but they largely vote with the English against the sovereignists. Montreal, which has hundreds of thousands of English speakers, might also be divided; a former cabinet minister has proposed that Montreal should separate on its own, becoming a sort of Singapore. County-by-county self-determination—”Swiss cheese” partitionism—has also been proposed.

Whatever the details of a negotiated settlement, there is a more fundamental reason that the rest of Canada could scarcely accept the existing provincial boundaries: Unlike the Norway/Sweden or Slovakia/Czech Republic splits, an intact Quebec departure would split the other successor state in two, cutting off four Atlantic provinces from the rest of the country. The St. Lawrence south shore would be the simplest connecting corridor; any other corridor would divide the new independent Quebec.

Even that might prove unacceptable to the rest of Canada. Former Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau was willing to risk a potentially explosive “unilateral declaration of independence,” but this could result in chaotic consequences, without solving the territorial dispute. A stable agreement would require the new state to sacrifice something of great value to a hostile successor Canada, and territory is just about all it would have to offer. Quebec is now balancing its budget and booming economically but is about $100 billion in debt and would have to shoulder another $140 billion of federal debt as well.

While both partitionists and secessionists draw on the Wilsonian doctrine of plebiscitary self-determination, secessionists mean the self-determination of the province as a whole, with guarantees of minority rights. Non-Canadians have sometimes cheered on both positions. Canada has always irritated many Americans and Europeans —”an impossible country,” as one Englishman put it a century ago, “because sentiment is divorced from interest.” Peter Brimelow, an Englishman who left a career in Canadian business journalism to emigrate to the United States, made a stir a few years ago with the funniest and most penetrating of these outsider commentaries, in a book called The Patriot Game. His reforming impatience recalled Lord Macauley, but Canada continued to be resolutely Tory: unworkable in theory, but successful in practice.

Separatist arguments have always been Utopian; partitionist ones are a mirror-image dystopian critique. Their real message is that a seceding Quebec could not possibly be created without huge cost Partition might produce the same un happy results as those created elsewhere in the world. But separatists maintain that intact departure would cause almost no pain at all. They also insist that the whole debate be conducted with the utmost “serenity.”

Historical amnesia is no worse in Quebec than it has lately been generally, but it led local radicals to underestimate inertia and caution. The great “world-historical” events for Canadians were not the conquest or confederation, but the two World Wars—especially World War I. Canada lost over 60,000 men in World War I; its population was then about one 15th that of the U.S. population. Quebec nationalists opposed conscription in both wars, but 200,000 French Canadians nonetheless volunteered to fight in World War II.

The dominant role of the Roman Catholic Church in French education, which lasted until the 1960’s, left an odd double inheritance. Secularization initially turned the state into a new church. Like the old one, it is more a home of bureaucrats than of firebrands. Quebeckers are obsessively devoted to public-opinion polls. While Canadians have participated in many wars, neither the French nor the English have much tradition of insurrection or civil conflict, save a skirmish with British colonial rule in 1837 and an inept venture in Marxist terrorism in Quebec 30 years ago. Even the conquest came out of a battle between armies from overseas. Neither secessionists nor their opponents threaten force of arms.

On the other hand, Canada has a very substantial collective memory of patriotic achievement and sacrifice. Even astute outside observers tend to forget the assumptions they import from their own countries, overemphasizing the central political conflict and underestimating such unifying forces as climate, geography, and shared historical experience. The politics may look Austro-Hungarian, but real life here is Scandinavian. Canada would not want to wage war against a departing Quebec, but it would certainly demand some heavy price be paid. Partitionism bells the cat.