Canada outlines proposal to heal divided nation


TORONTO -- Canada sketched the process yesterday that it will use to try to keep the country from fracturing along regional and linguistic lines, a process that will begin with a new set of proposed constitutional amendments to be unveiled in September.

While far from being bold or detailed, the government's pledge was the clearest indication Canadians have had so far of what their elected officials will do about demands from Quebec that "English Canada" find a way of keeping the country together.

Quebec has threatened that if the federal government has not issued any unification proposals by fall it will hold a referendum next year on whether to stay in Canada.

The federal government's general response to the situation was revealed in its highly ceremonial "Speech to the Throne," an annual presentation with a significance roughly equivalent to the State of the Union address in the United States. The speech was delivered yesterday by Canadian Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn but is said to also represent the thinking of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Mr. Hnatyshyn said that in September the government will issue a set of proposals for amending the Canadian Constitution, aimed at correcting regional and linguistic differences that have been festering in this country for the past year.

A special parliamentary committee will then travel throughout Canada, discussing the proposals in open public sessions with provincial legislators and native-Canadian groups. Five months after that, the lawmakers are to report back to Ottawa with a completed formula for getting Canada back on its feet.

While Mr. Hnatyshyn's speech outlined Prime Minister Mulroney's plan for constitutional reform, there was no indication of what the reform itself might involve.

The immediate response to the vague pledges was one of disappointment, even anger. A special panel already has crisscrossed Canada to collect public opinions and the findings are to be presented in July.

Quebec has never signed the Canadian Constitution, and Mr. Mulroney promised during his first term to amend the document in ways that would make it palatable to the Francophones. His efforts touched off little criticism at first, but gradually they built ill will on the part of many English-speaking Canadians.

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