Rejection in Canada

October 30, 1992

Anti-incumbent sentiment in the United States is nothing compared to its counterpart in Canada. That helps explain the emphatic rejection of the proposed new constitution in the referendum there -- 54 percent against, 42 percent for; six provinces against out of ten. Far from the unanimity of provinces required, the result was the closest voters could come to rejecting the federal prime minister and ten provincial premiers from three nationwide parties who, with native Canadian leaders, negotiated and unanimously endorsed that tricky mosaic of compromises.

The trouble is that Quebecers, whose aspiration for protection of their "distinct society" within Canada was enshrined in the document (but not sufficiently for them to endorse it) were rejected, too. Especially in the English-speaking West. So were Canada's fragmented patchwork of native peoples, who were to be granted the right of self-government (whatever that might mean in practice). Now they are back to no guarantees.

Two political careers are in shambles, those of federal Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, one English-speaking and Conservative, the other Francophone and Liberal, both dedicated to keeping their native Quebec Province within a united Canada. Meanwhile, they continue to hold their offices, with acknowledged unpopularity and with reduced authority.

So Canada is stuck with the constitution "patriated" from Britain that Quebec never approved. Uncertainty clouds its future. Investment is discouraged. It is apparent that groups within this bilingual, multi-cultural society are not sympathetic with each other's grievances. National identity is diminished; group identity amplified.

Canadians and their politicians are tired of the impasse. They are not going back to the drawing board soon. That leaves the ball in the Quebec separatists' court. They are the opposition in Quebec, and face an election within two years in which they will raise high once more the banner of "sovereignty" -- in association with the rest of Canada if the rest of Canada can be persuaded to go along.

Many of the Quebecers voting against the Charlottetown accord are federalists but thought this the wrong deal, with insufficient recognition of Quebec's "distinct society." Now they know they can only get less recognition. The Parti Quebecois has two years to turn them into separatists. It will not automatically happen. But a lot of English-speakers in Ontario and the West made clear that they don't care. That attitude will not help hold Canada together when the next crunch comes.

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