Canadians voting on reforms intended to keep country united

October 26, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

TORONTO -- Canadian voters are going to the polls today to vote on whether their national constitution should be amended according to a sweeping set of proposals written in hopes of keeping the country united.

This is the first time Canada has held a nationwide referendum in half a century, and emotions are running high. One recent opinion survey found that 87 percent of adult Canadians are planning to vote.

TC Legally, the referendum is non-binding. But as a matter of practice, no Canadian politician will be able to overlook whatever signal the public sends.

The consequences of a "no" vote are not easy to predict. Some analysts say a "no" would mean business as usual for Canada, while others go so far as to say it would set in motion the eventual dissolution of the country.

A "yes" vote would be more straightforward: It would simply mean Canada's leaders can proceed with the lengthy and cumbersome process of ratifying the amendments.

If the proposed amendments are ultimately ratified, they would set Quebec aside as a "distinct society" within Canada; reform Canada's discredited Senate; give Quebec a permanent 25 percent representation in the House of Commons, even if its population declines; and grant Indians and Inuit -- as the Eskimos prefer to be called -- the right to govern themselves.

When the amendments were unveiled in August, Canadians seemed inclined to accept them.

Increasingly, however, support has dwindled, and opinion surveys now show the amendments in serious trouble in the key provinces of Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta.

Many Quebec French-speakers say that they would vote "no" today because they do not think the amendments give enough powers to their province.

English-speakers in the West, meanwhile, are saying that they will vote "no" because they believe the amendments give Quebec too many powers.

In addition to the fundamental split between the Quebec-based French-speakers and the Western English-speakers, there are a number of other divisions among Canadians over less central elements of the package.

Organized feminists, for instance, oppose the amendments because they believe that the constitutional changes could undermine the government's commitment to women's rights.

Some Indian chiefs complain that the proposals for native self-government are not explicit enough.

Champions of Senate reform think that the new Senate would still be ineffectual.

A large number of Canadians do not really object to the amendments, but plan to vote "no" simply because they are fed up with mainstream politicians and their seemingly endless attempts to amend the constitution.

People in that last category think their angry "no" votes will scare the political elite into abandoning their constitutional tinkering for good, and attending to the pressing economic problems now facing the country.

But their expectations contrast sharply with those of the Quebec "no" voters, who tend to think that if they reject this package of constitutional amendments, the English-speaking politicians will go back to the bargaining table and draw up a new deal that's better for Quebec.

For all the worry about Canada unraveling, polls suggest that what most Quebecers want is more autonomy within Canada -- not outright independence.

With so much disagreement in the air, the only sure outcome of a "no" vote will be a period of political uncertainty for Canada.

In Ottawa, all three major political parties have been enthusiastically campaigning for the "yes" side. A "no" would show them to be woefully out of step with their own constituents, and send them scrambling for new party lines.

Meanwhile, a "no" could lend tremendous momentum to several small, regionally based upstart parties whose leaders have been fighting the amendments.

The main beneficiary is likely to be the anti-establishment, western-based Reform Party, which opposes such policies as official bilingualism, and the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois, which supports independence.

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