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CANADIAN RULING PRESERVES STABLE TRADE

The Canadian Supreme Court decision making it tougher for Quebec to secede and throw the country into turmoil won't change relations between Canada and American locales like Western New York. And that's the point.

Had the justices ruled the other way and given the French-speaking province the authority to unilaterally declare itself a new nation, a possible disruption within America's biggest trading partner could have sent ripples southward.

Many trade deals worked out under the 1988 U.S.-Canada free trade pact and the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement would have been thrown into turmoil because Quebec is a key player in those pacts and the cross-border economic activity they generate.

With New York's economy exporting $9.8 billion worth of goods to Canada last year, Western New York businesses certainly would have been among those affected by a bitter split between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Such a split would have worsened economic problems within Canada and affected the free flow of goods and services as Canadian governments worked out how they would relate to one another and how Quebec would relate to the rest of the world.

That kind of disruption may be avoided now thanks to a unanimous court ruling that Quebec cannot unilaterally secede simply by holding a referendum in which a majority of its residents vote for independence. Instead, it must negotiate the matter with the central government, a bureaucratic roadblock that makes secession and a break-up of the nation considerably more remote.

The central government put the matter before the court after separatists in Quebec came frighteningly close to getting a majority vote for independence in a 1995 referendum. Even if they hold another such vote -- and win this time -- it won't mean much because they still would have to negotiate with a federal government not eager to let go of a big chunk of its territory or its population, some portions of which have no desire to leave Canada.

And the very fact that separation now would not be the cakewalk that separatists had promised might be enough to dissuade many Quebeckers who might otherwise have supported independence in a referendum.

The court didn't say what would happen if Quebec and Canada negotiate over separation but reach an impasse. But it certainly made clear that this is one divorce that will never be quick or painless. That's good news on both sides of the border.

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