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More than ever, Canada has become politically two countries. The dividing line is the Ottawa River. The division is not, as we usually assume, between Quebec and the Rest of Canada. Rather it is between Old Canada, which consists of Quebec and the Atlantic Provinces, and New Canada, which stretches from Ontario to British Columbia.

The importance of this division has become starkly evident in national politics. Whoever is chosen to lead Canada's new national party, the Reform-Conservative Alliance, has little hope of winning seats in Old Canada in the next election. Conversely, the political parties identified with Old Canada, the Bloc Québécois and the Progressive Conservative Party, have no prospects in New Canada. The Liberals will fight for survival everywhere in both Canadas. Under Jean Chrétien's leadership, they will almost certainly be beaten, either outnumbered in a house of minorities, or, in an outside possibility, give way to an Alliance majority built entirely on seats in New Canada.

The Old-New distinction is profoundly, though not totally, rooted in history. Old Canada was a creation of the 17th and 18th centuries. New Canada emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries. The idea that, on the one hand, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces would become an identifiable region, and on the other hand, Ontario and the West would meld together, nonetheless seemed preposterous so long as two conditions applied. These were (1) Quebec's extreme sense of ethnic distinctiveness; and (2) the Western provinces' intense sense of regional identity and estrangement. Since at least the 1960s, Canadian national politics has swirled constantly around the challenges posed by either, or both, Quebec nationalism and Western alienation.

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In the 1990s that all changed. Containing Quebec separatism may have been the central theme of Canadian politics from the Trudeau years through the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords and the 1995 Quebec referendum. Now, as a result of a very complex series of changes in attitudes in both Quebec and the other parts of Canada, it is not much of an issue. Whether or not we have achieved a long-term modus vivendi, the only non-Quebec political party still committed to the old game of redesigning Canada to appease Quebec is the Progressive Conservative rump. But most of the PCs' slim and diminishing electoral hopes actually flow from their simultaneous commitment to redesigning Canadian social policies to appease the Maritimes.

West of the Ottawa River, it's remarkable in this season of high fuel costs that the Ontario energy dog is not barking in the night. Queen's Park does snarl a bit about oil company price-fixing, but no one pays much attention. We are light years beyond the bitter conflicts between Central Canada and the West on energy policy, which poisoned national politics in the late 1970s, drove a huge wedge between the Conservative governments of Ontario and Alberta, and largely undermined what proved to be the last hope that the old PC party could put together a stable national coalition.

Instead of intense east-west division on energy and constitutional issues, we have been seeing the West and Ontario find common ground in the 1990s: common economic ground as the fastest-growing parts of the country, common cultural ground as immigrant- and multicultural-friendly societies, common political ground in rethinking the role of government (the B.C. NDP aberration notwithstanding) and being open to change. Now we are witnessing the fascinating attempt to institutionalize these common interests in the forging of the Alliance as a potential governing party.

There are 193 House of Commons seats in New Canada, 108 in Old Canada. When Tom Long began his national campaign for the Alliance leadership in Nova Scotia last week it was more of a gesture than a serious hope of some day winning seats in Atlantic Canada. Mr. Long went into the lion's den and directly attacked the central tenets of the political culture of Old Canada, which revolve around the uses of government and patronage as engines of sustenance.

The political culture of Old Canada is the culture of the government grant, the subsidy to business, the handout to the unemployed, the handout to your political friends. In Atlantic Canada and Quebec, politicians are proud to announce handouts, proud of the activities of HRDC, content to play the old patronage games.

These areas of Canada hold conservatively to the last generation's faith that big government and tax-and-spend politics are the answer to slow growth, and that most of the changes Mr. Long and other Alliance politicians are talking about would be ruinous. It's Red Toryism, whether it comes with a Québécois or a Celtic accent. It's represented in national politics by the Bloc, the PQ remnant, and the Chrétien wing of the Liberal party, the Liberals who haven't been able to understand why anyone would see the Prime Minister as yesterday's man.

But what if Old Canada is becoming Yesterday's Canada? West of Quebec there is much more interest in generating growth by shrinking government, liberating individuals and the private sector, and learning how to be truly competitive in a rapidly changing world. The politics of handouts isn't nearly as popular in areas of the country where fewer Canadians think they need them, where it's no longer fashionable to tug the forelock to the well-fed local MP. The Alliance will put all its electoral chips on appealing to the political culture of New Canada. Some of its supporters dream that they might hit the ultimate jackpot: If the Alliance sweeps B.C. and the prairies, and takes two-thirds of Ontario's seats, then New Canada governs with a majority. Old Canada is left out in the cold.

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This is speculation in the middle of an Alliance leadership contest in which almost anything could go wrong. Assuming that the Alliance does hold together, and making the safe bet that the federal PCs will remain moribund everywhere west of New Brunswick, the Liberals will certainly lose a significant number of seats in Ontario. We'll probably have a minority government after the next election, but there is a huge range of possible political combinations. In certain scenarios, we might be astonished to find that Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and her advisers become important players.

One way or another, though, the political clout of New Canada will eventually shape the future of the country. The West and Ontario drive our destiny.

There is no space here to reflect on various other ways in which Old Canada might respond to the threat of being passed by as the nation evolves, both economically and politically, or to reflect on alternative courses that could be pursued by the Liberal Party as it tries to bridge the growing divide. Until its March convention, I had thought the governing party had the reserves of intelligence and nimbleness to buy itself another term or two with a quick leadership transition from Mr. Chrétien to Paul Martin. It might still happen, but in this strange political season the players are running almost eerily to form. The Old Canadians who control the Liberal party are clinging timidly to the old ways. The people from the New Canada are arguing about the best way to the future. Michael Bliss is a history professor at the University of Toronto. His books include Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney.

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