Canadian poll gets a blast of nastiness

All over the spacious glass and marble lobby of a tall office building in the heart of Toronto's business district there are signs bearing the same environmentally-friendly message. "It's lights out at the Exchange Tower. Help give migrating birds 'Safe Flight' by eliminating or reducing the use of office lights from dusk to dawn. Thank you for your co-operation."

Try putting up a sign like that in downtown Dallas and they'd arrest you on suspicion of harbouring Communist sympathies. But in Canada they treasure civility, restraint, consideration - not only towards people but towards all living things. And yet, if most of the politicians taking part in tomorrow's Canadian general election are to be believed, their nation's reputation for Buddha-like blandness is under threat like never before. Bigotry stalks the land. Civil war looms. Good is doing battle with evil.

A terrible beauty is slouching towards Ottawa and its deceptively folksy name is Preston Manning, a conservative from Alberta whom the newspapers describe as the most extremist candidate in Canadian election history. The prime minister, Jean Chretien, and other election rivals have called him a hateful, intolerant, poisonous, un-Canadian bigot who appeals variously to prejudice, the worst in human nature and "the dark side of people". Sheila Copps, the deputy prime minister, is not alone in saying that Mr Manning and his Reform Party would lead Canada "down the path of war". It has even been suggested that Mr Manning's secret agenda is to remould Canada in the image of the United States.

The hysteria might be more muted were it not for polls showing that this pustulous excrescence on the hitherto pristine Canadian body politic threatens to come second behind Mr Chretien and would become the leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

As if to prepare himself for the role, Mr Manning gave an address at Toronto's Royal York Hotel on Thursday at a lunch hosted by a nostalgic institution named the Empire Club. A middle-aged-to-elderly crowd of 400 - men in dark suits, matrons in pearls - gathered in a ballroom designed like a pagan version of the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes on the ceiling bore ancient classical images of nymphs and swains, Pegasus the winged horse and Leda about to be raped by Zeus disguised as a swan.

Mr Manning, 55, is no Greek god. A slight man in a grey suit with a hangdog face, he sports grey hair dyed orange that sits on his skull like a bicycle helmet. It looks like a wig but his image consultants, and his wife, seem to prefer it to the original.

"Sandra and I have been married since 1967," Mr Manning told his audience, "and like many couples that have been married that long Sandra sometimes says to me, 'Do you still love me?' And I say, 'Of course.' Then she says, 'Why don't you say so, then?' So I do. I put it into words." The moral of the story, Mr Manning explained, was that Canadians had to love their country more, in deeds as well as words, and that way they would have a better relationship with one another.

All very charming, and the Empire Club crowd lapped it up. But, his critics say, what these banalities thinly disguise is a reactionary set of beliefs. He holds what in the US would be moderate Republican positions on abortion, the death penalty and gun control, rooted in a divisive Francophobia.

The sub-text of Mr Manning's cosy matrimonial metaphor is that French- speaking and English-speaking Canada - Quebec and the Rest - are trapped in an uncommunicative, loveless marriage. Quebec has been the sour, unfaithful husband and the rest of Canada the sweetly-smiling, long-suffering wife. His aim is to try and force an honest resolution of a pathological, ambiguous relationship. He has dared give voice to English-speaking Canadians' dirty little secret: that many, if not most, are fed up with the secessionist whinings and grumblings of what they perceive to be the spoiled, ungrateful, eternally restive people of Quebec.

What more do they want? is the cry of Mr Manning's supporters. Quebec politicians have dominated the federal government in Ottawa for the last 30 years - Mr Chretien will remain in power for another five years after tomorrow's certain victory. In Quebec itself the French language rules to such a degree that road signs read not "Stop", as in France, but "Arret".

Mr Manning, noting the reluctance of the other politicians to face the issues, wants a referendum that will clear the air once and for all, and set out for the first time exactly what the consequences would be for those Quebequois who demand sovereignty but still want to hold on to their Canadian passports, currency and other privileges they hold dear.

Mr Manning is an advocate of tough love. The reason he generates so much apoplexy is his enemies' fear that in challenging the myth of soft, mushy love on which Canadians have chosen to build their national identity, he might expose a terrible truth: that his compatriots are no nicer under the surface than their barbarian neighbours to the south.