Canada or Confusion

October 24, 1992

Canada is the envy of the world. Its standard of living, resources, civility and absence of responsibilities of a great power make millions of people wish they were Canadians. Yet many Canadians wish they weren't. Even more are unhappy with the condition of their nationality. They cannot agree on a basis for holding it together.

Monday's referendum on the Charlottetown Agreement on a new constitution is legally nonbinding. It began as a referendum in Quebec on sovereignty, was turned into a vote on the proposed constitution and then spread to all ten provinces. But the proposed constitution lives or dies on whether all ten provinces, through their legislatures, adopt it. If any one does not, it fails. That's the current constitutional arrangement for you. The referendum is legally advisory.

Polls suggest the draft constitution is vulnerable in several provinces, especially British Columbia and Quebec.

Separatists in Quebec, knowing their cause is a minority view, crusade against the agreement on the argument that a better one can be had, not that none should be. Yet the Reform Party, the new party spreading like wild grass in the Western prairies, crusades against the proposal as giving Quebec too much. The best thing going for the constitution is the pride surging from Atlantic to Pacific in the Toronto Blue Jays.

Since the Charlottetown agreement had the backing of all provincial and federal prime ministers, indigenous leaders and the three nationwide parties, it ought to pass the legislative hurdles. But leading politicians have called the nonbinding referendum binding on them politically. A decisive rejection in a major province such as Quebec or British Columbia would doom it. Failure could drive Brian Mulroney, the Conservative federal prime minister, and Robert Bourassa the Liberal (and quietly federalist) Quebec premier from politics within a year.

Canada's ratification of the extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement to Mexico would become questionable without Mr. Mulroney. Would Canada itself exist in the long haul? Mr. Mulroney says a no vote "will be the beginning of the process of dismantling Canada." Mr. Bourassa says it would be "a leap into uncertainty." Small wonder the Canadian dollar is down and foreign investment on hold.

The proposed constitution is a Lebanese mosaic of apportioned powers and perks for Quebec, the four big provinces, all provinces and native peoples. By and large most interests think they got too little and everyone else too much. Successful compromises are like that. The immediate alternative is not the breakup of Canada, but confusion.

Canada is a good thing. No one outside it can understand why so many Canadians would prefer confusion.

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