Canada near deal on the Quebec issue

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THE LEADERS of Canada's national and provincial governments have reached an agreement on restructuring the federal parliament that could break the log-jam and lead to wider constitutional settlement. The agreement, reached yesterday after months of negotiations, would create a new type of elected senate, or upper house, to replace the second chamber, where members are appointed and which operates similarly to the House of Lords.

An elected senate is intended to represent provincial and regional interests in Ottawa and act as a watchdog or counterweight to the unpopular federal government. The new senate would be accompanied by an increase in the size of the House of Commons to compensate large provinces such as Quebec and Ontario for their diminished representation in the new senate. All provinces would have the same number of senators (six), regardless of their size.

The content of the agreement is not as significant as the fact that it has been supported by Robert Bourassa, the Quebec Premier, who only agreed to resume negotiations with the rest of Canada this week after an absence of two years. Mr Bourassa's return underlines the pressure on the various government representatives to find a new deal before the Quebec premier faces a referendum on the province's future to be held this autumn.

The parliamentary reform outlined this week will only be put into effect if the negotiators can also agree on an additional package which would give Quebec a special status as a 'distinct society' with unique powers to promote its French language and culture, and its different civil law.

In return, the federal government wants individual provinces to dismantle some of their subsidies and other internal trade barriers. All of these changes are supposed to be linked to the creation of a new third level of government for Canada's indigenous Indian and Inuit peoples. Although natives constitute less than 5 per cent of Canada's population, they have laid claim to large tracts of ancestral land and are demanding a form of self-government, as yet undefined.

The failure to address the native claims in the last serious attempt to restructure the Canadian constitution two years ago blocked the ratification of what became known as the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord. In the meantime, the failure of the Meech Lake deal has led to a sharp increase in the intensity of separatist feelings in Quebec and the most recent polls show that Mr Bourassa would be easily defeated by the Parti Quebecois, which favours independence, if an election were called in the near future.

This time, Indian and Inuit representatives have been taking part in the negotiations, but Quebec and several other provincial leaders are unhappy about any concessions that might have the effect of creating native states within states. Memories of the stand-off between heavily armed Mohawk warriors and police in several areas around Montreal, a rebellion that ended with the deployment of army units in tanks and armoured personnel carriers, are still fresh in Quebec.

Even if the negotiators can agree on a package of constitutional changes this week, the results still have to be sold to a sceptical Canadian public. Three of the principal negotiators, Brian Mulroney, the Prime Minister, Mr Bourassa and Donald Getty, the Alberta Premier and one of the instigators of the newly elected senate, are all very unpopular with their electorates and trail behind their political opponents.