Canada's headlong plunge toward, or desperate flight from, disintegration swept past another milestone last weekend when a parliamentary committee presented the country with the latest blueprint for keeping Quebec within confederation and saving the country -- making their deadline by a full 54 minutes.
The last time the government went through this drill, in the failed Meech Lake Accords, criticism was raised that Quebec was being singled out for largess. (Those accords, drawn up in 1987, collapsed in 1990.) This time the plan offers a wider-necked cornucopia of proposals, one that also has more goodies for the other Canadian provinces.
The plan, if accepted, would greatly change Canada's national institutions, its economic and political facts of life and the basic relationship between Ottawa and the provinces.
That the national parties were willing to divest power to the provinces is something the provinces will like and something that will work in favor of gaining their acceptance for the plan. The plan must be approved by parliament and by seven of the provinces containing at least 50 per cent of Canada's population. Of course, if Quebec isn't one of those provinces, the rest doesn't matter.
The 131-page report offers:
* Quebec recognition as a distinct society within Canada, with its own culture and civil code. Quebec also would have a veto over future constitutional changes and be assured of three of the nine Supreme Court seats.
* Turning the upper house of parliament, the Senate, into an elected body, with more powers and more equitable distribution of seats. But the provinces would not have equal representation, one of the demands of the western provinces.
* Some degree of self-government for Native Americans (Indians and Inuits).
* Social and economic changes, including knocking down trade barriers between the provinces and putting into the constitution a "social covenant" guaranteeing the right to adequate education, health and social services.
* Control for all provinces over a broader area of affairs, including energy, mining, housing, tourism, recreation, forestry and labor training.
"The document is a model of cooperative federalism," according to committee member Lorne Nynstrom of the New Democratic Party. "The reforms maintain a strong central government [highly questionable] while giving the provinces flexibility to develop their own personalities [quite true]."
"These proposals provide the country with a new, less confrontational direction," said committee co-chairwoman Dorothy Donnie, of the governing Conservative Party.
But not all were quick to agree. Among the quickest to disagree was the leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, Jacques Parizeau, who ridiculed the report as an "affront."
Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa expressed his official
disappointment and urged the rest of Canada (sometimes referred to as TROC) to keep trying. His party last year said Quebec must get total control over 22 cultural, economic and political areas and share control over 10 other areas. The parliamentary report did not meet this demand.
Native American leaders also were upset. Ovide Mercredi, the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the degree of self-government proposed was not sufficient and called for an active voice for Native Americans in the next round of talks.
Yes, there will be a next round. This report technically will merely form the basis for discussion first within the central government and then between Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the provincial premiers. Quebec may boycott this meeting as it generally has been boycotting meetings in which it feels itself just another one of the provinces and not a distinct one.
By April 15, Mr. Mulroney feels, the precises details of the offer to Quebec should be clear.
Hovering in the background is the October 26 deadline Quebec has set for a referendum on separation if it is not satisfied with what TROC is offering it.
But while the political rhetoric seems pretty much the same as it has been, other parts of the separation equation have changed.
For one thing, the Native Americans are much more vocal and are thinking beyond negotiations to a possible Quebec pullout. It was a lone Indian legislator in Manitoba who shot down Meech Lake, and now the Indians and Inuits are saying that if Quebec goes, it shouldn't be able to take with it sections of the province that were not part of the original French settlement. "Our rights do not take a back seat to yours," Mr. Mercredi has stated.
Within Quebec, support for independence is falling. A year ago, 64 per cent of the public supported it. Now it is down to 46.
Why the drop? One theory is the economic realities of a separation are finally making themselves known, and this fear of a tougher future is causing the pragmatists to abandon the dreams of political sugarplums.