Canadian poll offers no end to quarrels

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The Independent Online
THE CROWD was already whooping with anticipation, when suddenly the hall dimmed and the disco began.

High-intensity lights darted across 5,000 faces and the music pumped: 'The Heat is On, It's on the Street, I can feel the fire.'

It was Saturday night in an ice- hockey arena in suburban Montreal and morale-boosting time for the local 'yes' campaign in Canada's referendum for a new constitution. The beat was energising, and the lyrics inadvertently apt. One week before next Monday's vote, this latest effort to end the historical stand-off between French-speaking Quebec and Anglophone Canada is in danger of going up in flames.

Agreed between the provincial and native Indian leaders and the federal Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, in August in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, this was to be the constitutional pact that finally laid to rest the arguments that have riven this country since it was founded 125 years ago. The agreement now seems destined for defeat, threatening to make the struggle more divisive than ever.

Polls this weekend showed that the 'yes' campaign was trailing by 16 points in Quebec, with 32 per cent supporting the deal and 48 per cent against it, although the gap has narrowed slightly. Meanwhile, across the rest of Canada, at least two provinces - Alberta and British Columbia in the west - also seemed to be set on rejecting the accord. For it to be ratified, the deal has to be approved by each province separately.

The fall-out from a 'no' vote is hard to predict, but Mr Mulroney has warned darkly that the country could fall to pieces and the economy plunge further into recession. He has also hinted that he might immediately resign. Here in Quebec, meanwhile, the forces for separation and the creation of a sovereign state would surely be dramatically boosted.

'It's a terrifying prospect', says Joan Frazer, editor of Quebec's sole English daily, The Gazette. 'It would give the independence people an automatic political platform. I think we're going to become Belfast without bombs where the ancient quarrels just go on and on.'

Designed to give Quebec greater autonomy while keeping it in the federal fold, the Charlottetown pact enshrines for the first time the notion of the province representing a 'distinct society' within Canada with its own linguistic and cultural traditions and legal system - enshrined in the French-origin civil code. Though vague in definition, the distinct- society concept would be the principle by which the courts would in future defend the province's rights.

The agreement also guarantees all the provinces greater autonomy in areas such as education and immigration and a right of veto over changes in federal law. It would also transform Canada's upper house, the Senate, in the federal parliament, changing it to an elected body, with two senators from each province, irrespective of size. Reform of the Senate has long been demanded by the western provinces of Canada and thus is meant to be the quid pro quo for the concessions to Quebec. A third layer of government is also promised to native Indians and Inuits (Eskimos).

Notwithstanding the revelry on the ice rink - covered over, of course - the 'yes' campaign in Quebec has suffered one setback after another. First, the former prime minister Pierre Trudeau denounced the pact as a 'big mess', then the credibility of Robert Bourassa, the Premier of Quebec, who negotiated the agreement, was shattered by press leaks revealing that his own staff thought he had 'caved in' at the Charlottetown talks.

The beneficiary is the leader of the Parti Quebecois, Jacques Parizeau, who has made hay of the Bourassa leaks and stoked feeling among Francophones that the deal offers them little. Ted Dorlan, a student at a technical college just inside Quebec on the eastern edge of Ottawa is typical. 'You'd have thought they could do better after 30 years of fighting. I'm not sure that French and English Canadians will ever be able to get along.'

Gilles Rocheleau, a member of parliament for the extreme separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois, was cheered wildly when he spoke in the college's canteen last Friday. 'It is inevitable that Quebec will next have to vote on its sovereignty. This accord will be rejected because it is unacceptable equally to the federalists and the sovereigntists. And it would settle nothing', he said in an interview.

Back at the ice rink, the 'yes' folk refused to give up hope, doubting the polls and convinced that come next Monday people will see Charlottetown as the best compromise they are likely to get. They despair of Mr Parizeau and others leading the 'no' campaign.

Taking advantage of a brief pause between one more disco burst and another speech, Morris Benamour, a taxi-driver, vents his irritation. 'Parizeau and Trudeau are crazy, just crazy. Give them a constitution of solid gold and they'd still refuse it. For 125 years they were given nothing. Now they have a chance to get something and they're wrecking it. To hell with them.'