Tempers flare on Quebec referendum Many fear breakup of Canada after Oct. 26 initiative

October 13, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

CALGARY, Alberta -- High in his 36th-floor executive suite, overlooking the neat line where the trees and houses of this city greet the vast, tawny expanse of Alberta prairie, oilman Kent Jespersen is girding for the political battle of his life.

"I think this vote is the most important vote that Canadians will have to cast, at least in my lifetime," says Mr. Jespersen, senior vice president of Nova Corp.

Mr. Jespersen means the referendum scheduled Oct. 26, in which all adult Canadians will be asked to approve a set of constitutional amendments designed to keep Quebec in Canada. It is Canada's first national referendum since 1942, when voters went to the polls to say yes or no to conscription at the height of World War II.

That balloting was highly divisive, with virtually the entire French-speaking population of Quebec voting against a draft -- and against the rest of the country. And the Oct. 26 referendum promises to be no less fractious.

Already, tempers are flaring as national politicians warn that a vote against the amendments could lead to the breakup of the country, while opponents accuse the politicians of scaremongering.

Across Canada, all manner of things are happening as the referendum date approaches. Key civil servants have found their telephone conversations taped and leaked to the media. A top bank economist is predicting a major recession, with 15 percent unemployment, if "No" wins and -- as some suggest it will -- Quebec then secedes from the confederation.

Even former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau has jumped in, writing anti-amendment essays.

Pollsters are upon the land, in search of hints of how the vote will Early nationwide samples suggested a close count, but opposition to the amendments appears to be gathering force, especially in Quebec, British Columbia and here in Alberta. The French-speaking Quebecers generally think the proposed amendments don't go far enough; the English-speaking British Columbians and Albertans tend to say the changes would give too many special privileges to Quebec.

The polls also show that large numbers of Canadians are having an exceptionally difficult time making up their minds.

The uncertainty is generating economic woes, and these have persuaded Mr. Jespersen, who says he doesn't ordinarily get involved in politics, to become co-chairman of the Yes for Canada Committee in Alberta.

"If there is a 'No' vote, for sure there will be political instability, and that will have economic consequences," he warns. "Investors just don't like political instability."

This month's referendum is the latest chapter in a constitutional saga that has been running in Canada for decades. Of Canada's 10 provinces, only nine have ratified the national constitution. Quebec has held out, arguing that the document does not enshrine the autonomy it needs to protect its unique French language and culture.

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, himself a Quebecer, though an English-speaking one, took office in 1984 promising to "bring Quebec into the constitutional family" by amending the constitution to the province's satisfaction.

His first attempt, a brace of amendments called the Meech Lake Accord, died a humiliating death two years ago when the provincial legislature in Manitoba refused to ratify it, and the one in Newfoundland threatened not to.

Those favoring the amendments constitute a well-established network of business leaders, union activists and the chiefs of all three main political parties, while the "No" side is composed of aggrieved groups that have almost nothing in common except their dislike of the proposed constitutional changes.

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