Canada's Future Up for Grabs in Tomorrow's Referendum

October 25, 1992|By MYRON BECKENSTEIN

Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of Canada's life.

Tomorrow Canadians go to the polls for a referendum on the future of their country. The vote is on is a deal squeezed, hammered, caressed and nitpicked out by leaders of the federal government and the 10 provinces. Unless something unforeseen happens, it will lose.

And no one knows what this will mean for the future of Canada.

The current unpleasantness began several years ago when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney picked at the sore of Quebec nationalism and promised the French-speaking province a special role in Canadian affairs.

This led to the Meech Lake accords of 1990, which unexpectedly went down to defeat when two of the provinces decided not to go along. Unanimity was necessary.

More cries of woe and havoc, despair and chauvinism followed as Canada went through a period of national self-questioning. Panel after panel was created and went forth into the land to see what people wanted. Most said they wanted to stop worrying about the constitution; unfortunately, that wasn't a real option. Then the politicians met and tried to come up with something tangible.

The result was the Charlottetown accord, which, among other things, promised Quebec its distinct role in Canada, promised ,, Western Canada a more equitable federal Senate and promised other groups other things to reach a consensus.

In all, it is the greatest package of constitutional changes in Canada's 125-year history and will seriously change the relationship among the provinces and between the provinces and the federal government in Ottawa.

Hovering in the background was an earlier deadline by Quebec; it would hold a referendum by October 26 to decided something or other about its future if the rest of the country did not give it an acceptable offer to stay.

So October 26 was picked as the date for the national referendum on the Charlottetown accord. Quebec said it would use Charlottetown as its referendum, too.

Thus tomorrow's vote. But while the vote is non-binding and therefore doesn't mean anything, it also means everything. The binding vote has to be made by the federal parliament and the 10 provincial legislatures. Theoretically they could vote however they want, but they would be unlikely to go against the expressed wishes of a majority of their citizens.

Just to make things more complicated, the total vote is not the one that counts. The referendum needs to win in all 10 constituencies in order to win, and lose in only one in order to fail. That is, if 99 percent of the people across the country vote for it, including 99.3 percent in nine of the provinces and it loses 49 percent to 51 in tiny Prince Edward Island, it is dead.

Soon after the accord was reached August 28, hopes ran high. The leaders of the three major national parties supported it. Premier Robert Bourassa of Quebec supported it. Business and labor leaders supported it.

While few thought it was a wonderful deal, most said it was better than the alternative. "A 'no' is a leap into uncertainty. . . . We'd run into a tunnel without knowing if there is any light in it," said Mr. Bourassa.

Liberal leader Jean Chretien, by definition Mr. Mulroney's natural enemy, opted against the chance to make Charlottetown a partisan issue, saying, "For me, it is not a perfect deal. But it is the only deal we have."

He went on to observe, though, "We are stuck with a problem that did not need to be reopened. If Mulroney had shut up in 1987, and not opened that Pandora's box, we would not be where we are."

The initial enthusiasm turned out to be the high point of Yes support. About half the electorate nationwide backed it then, according to polls. About a 40 percent do now.

Some people objected to giving Quebec a special status. Others objected to the reshaping of the federal parliament. Others worried about civil and minority rights if they became provincial rather than federal matters.

Nothing seemed to work the way the Yes people intend. The government mailed copies of the deal to all 11 millions homes in the country. But pollsters found that "the more the undecideds ++ know about it, the less they liked it."

Tomorrow is judgment day. Quebec seems definitely against, British Columbia is questionable and Alberta doubtful.

In the aftermath, all roads lead to Quebec discontent. If Quebec votes against the plan, that would be a clear sign that Quebec does not consider the concessions enough. If Quebec somehow approves the accord and another part of the country doesn't, that would be taken in Quebec as yet another sign that it is not getting the respect it demands.

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