In what was also a humiliating set-back for the Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, and for the political establishment generally, Canadians overwhelmingly rejected a reform deal negotiated two months ago by Mr Mulroney and provincial and aboriginal leaders. Nationwide, the 'no' vote won by 54.4 per cent to 44.6 per cent.
As well as giving a fresh boost to secessionist forces in Quebec, the deal's rejection has already provoked anger among Canada's native Indian communities. Included in the so-called Charlottetown Agreement, negotiated in the provincial capital of Prince Edward Island, was an offer of 'inherent self-government' for the aboriginal Indian and Inuit (Eskimo) populations.
'We had an opportunity here to end dominance in the lives of the people I represent and we blew it,' said Ovide Mercredi, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Indians, he said, would take the law into their own hands to assert their rights and also make an appeal to the UN. 'We can assert our rights, we have our own law- making powers and we are not going to wait any more for your permission to use them,' he said.
Four out of 10 provinces, Newfoundland, New Brunswick Prince Edward Island, and Ontario, plus the Northwest Territories, backed the deal, designed principally to give Quebec greater autonomy as a 'distinct society' while keeping it in the federal fold. It was rejected by Quebec, 55.4 per cent to 42.4 per cent, while the margins were even wider in the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. In Ontaria, the bill scraped through with 49.8 per cent in favour to 49.6 per cent against. Conceding defeat, Mr Mulroney acknowledged in a late-night, national television broadcast that Charlottetown had been consigned to 'history', but warned that the issues it had attempted to settle remained. 'I do not share the optimism that has been expressed by some others that this is something we can ride over.' The grievances and aspirations of Canada's disparate communities remained, he said.
Though called upon by some to resign, Mr Mulroney pledged to turn his government's attention to the ailing economy, abandoning attempts at constitutional reform. So close was his association with the package, however, that he may come under pressure from his Conservative Party to step down next year ahead of federal elections which must be called by next autumn. In polls, Mr Mulroney suffers near-record unpopularity.
While the national election could radically alter the balance of power in Ottawa, with strong advances forecast for the fledgeling Reform Party which, from its Alberta base, led the 'no' campaign in the West, the consequences may be most dramatic in Quebec itself. Together the two secessionist parties, the Parti Quebecois (PQ) and the Bloc Quebecois, seem well placed to regain power.
Addressing a triumphant gathering of 'no' supporters in a Montreal nightclub late on Monday, Jacques Parizeau, the PQ leader, wasted no time in setting a new agenda. 'Let Canadians define their future as they want and us Quebeckers, we will define our future as we want,' he declared. 'We'll have to tell Quebeckers who said tonight they are a people, a nation that, tomorrow, very soon, they will have a country.' The moment of truth for Quebec is not likely to come until provincial elections due in 1994. If, as is now more likely, a pro-sovereignty coalition is elected, a referendum within the province could swiftly follow asking whether Quebec should finally separate from the rest of Canada. How such a vote would fall, however, remains unpredictable.
In an angry referendum in 1980, Quebeckers narrowly rejected a proposal for 'sovereignty-association' which would have given them quasi-independence while retaining economic and foreign policy links with Ottawa. In Monday's vote, the province divided between French-speakers who voted against the pact and English-speakers who supported it.
The rejection of Charlottetown by French Quebeckers largely reflected dissatisfaction with what was on offer, notably confirmation of Quebec's rights as a 'distinct society' with its own language and legal system and a guarantee of 25 per cent of the seats in parliament. In the West, the opposition was driven by concern that Quebec was getting too much. Westerners were also disappointed with proposals for limited reform of the Ottawa Senate, to make it into an elected body with equal representation for all the provinces.
Reaction to the defeat of the accord was sharpest from Indian leaders who threatened to take the law into their hands to assert their rights. Polls suggested fairly general support for the aboriginal elements of the Charlottetown package, as a step towards redressing widely acknowledged injustices inflicted since settlement on the native peoples who still make up 5 per cent of the population. Ron George, the leader of the Native Council of Canada, said: 'To those who voted 'no', I say congratulations, you have perpetuated apartheid in this country.' And in a reference to violent demonstrations by Mohawks in Montreal two years ago, he warned: 'If there are more roadblocks, more people killing themselves, congratulations, you won. I hope you feel good about that.'
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