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

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.

Jumping into the fray was former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who has kept a very low profile since leaving office in 1984. Possibly still the most widely respected politician in the country (Mr. Mulroney's popularity hovers around the high teens), he blasted the accord -- "A yes vote will lead to a new Canada . . . a weak and crippled Canada" -- and blasted his native Quebec for constantly making demands on the rest of the country.

"Every time a new demand is announced, the self-appointed elites snap to attention, ready to feel humiliated if the ransom is not paid at once. Most incredible of all, there are still good souls in English Canada who are ready to take these temper tantrums seriously and urge their compatriots to pay each new ransom for fear of losing each 'last chance' to save Canada. Poor things, they have not yet realized that the nationalists' thirst will never be satisfied."

A country "must choose to be or not to be," he said.


If the referendum fails, then what? No one seems to know. The people who don't want it don't want it for diametrically opposite reasons. The Quebecers feel it offers them too little, the Westerners feel it offers Quebec too much. Thus there is no consensus for what to try next.

All most observers can agree on is that it will not mean a return to a quiet antebellum status quo and it will not mean an immediate end of present Canada.

One thing that will not happen, at least not right away, is a better offer to Quebec. Quebecers are "deceiving themselves" if they think this, Mr. Mulroney warned in trying to gather support for a Yes vote. "It's not gonna happen."

The first move, as usual, will be up to Quebec.

"If Quebec votes it down . . . Quebecers then will be faced with a straight out choice between the constitutional status quo and a movement toward sovereignty," said McGill University law professor Jeremy Webber in Montreal.

Premier Bourassa put his prestige on the line by agreeing to the accord. If he is to fall because of this, the only alternative for Quebec is the more radical Parti Quebecois, which offers visions of some sort of independence and a wonderful future. (Most political analysts and economists think an increase in economic, social and political problems would be more likely for both Quebec and the rest of Canada if the separatists prevail).


If Quebecers want to remain in and build a stronger Canada, there is no party to represent this message and to serve as a rallying point. The only hope would lie in Mr. Bourassa continuing to moderate his position. But he is considered a political weather vane, more likely to go with what every breezes prevail than lead.

Thus, Quebec discontent is likely to continue.

How the rest of Canada responds depends, of course, on what Quebec does or doesn't do. Even the continued uncertainty, though, will take a toll on Canada's financial situation and detract from its ability to resolve other problems.

Mr. Mulroney has to call new elections by November of next year. But even if he is turned out, neither of the other two main parties has a plan for bringing peace and an end to the constitutional debate.

The public is tired of the constitutional morass and wishes that if it can't be resolved, it would just go away, so they could worry about other things, like the economy and baseball. But it won't go away and can't be shunted aside because it is too basic to everything.

Meanwhile there is baseball.


A TV ad urging a Yes vote shows a batter at the plate waiting for the perfect pitch. He strikes out, still waiting, as the announcer says that you can't always get perfection, but have to make the best with what you do get.

Also under baseball comes the Toronto Blue Jays. Some analysts say that Toronto's presence in the World Series could produce a national euphoria and pride in country that would give the backers the needed lift. Especially if Toronto wins.

Myron Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Baltimore Sun.