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Trudeau stirs up Canada's muddy waters: Hugh Winsor in Ottawa on how the new unity deal is splitting the nation

IT STARTED as a political sure thing, but in a manner which should be familiar to politicians and voters everywhere, it is turning into a disaster.

Canada's national referendum on 26 October was called to approve a constitutional agreement between the federal and provincial governments. Reached after long and exhausting negotiations, it was supposed to have saved Canada as a united country. Now the opinion polls show that the deal is in trouble, and the affair could end the political careers of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa.

The political uncertainty, fed by inflammatory warnings from Mr Mulroney of the doom and gloom that would follow defeat, has prompted an international run on the Canadian dollar, driving it down to about 80 per cent of the US dollar. The largest single jump in interest rates since the Bank of Canada was created in 1935 has failed to make any difference: at the end of last week the exchange rate was still dropping.

Most dramatic of all, Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister and perhaps the most prominent Canadian politician since the Second World War, roared out of retirement last Thursday to denounce the constitutional changes as a threat to civil liberties and a weakening of Canada. When critics tried to dismiss him as a 'man of the past', he had his answer ready. Pythagoras was also a man of the past, he said, 'but two plus two still equals four'.

By opposing the new constitutional accord, Mr Trudeau has confusingly aligned himself with the Quebec nationalists he had accused of trying to blackmail Canada with their threats of separation. In fact the 'yes' and 'no' sides have now become such a convoluted mixture that the original issue in the referendum is in danger of being lost.

The relationship of Quebec, which is predominantly French-speaking, to the rest of Canada, which is predominantly English-speaking, is an emotion-filled issue that has ebbed and flowed through Canadian history since the country was formed by a union of four British colonies 125 years ago.

Today's impasse has more recent roots, in the early Eighties when the constitution was revised under Mr Trudeau's leadership and imposed on the country over the objections of the separatist-leaning Quebec government of the day, headed by the late Rene Levesque. Mr Mulroney skilfully exploited this Quebec resentment to get his Conservative Party elected, and since then he has been trying, as a form of political quid pro quo, to change the constitution to facilitate a legal recognition of Quebec's special status.

When his first attempt was blocked two years ago, Quebeckers interpreted the defeat as a rejection by English-speaking Canada, and separatist sentiments soared. The latest agreement again endorsed Quebec as a distinct society within Canada because of its unique language, culture and legal system. But this time, the proposed constitutional amendment also granted Indians and Inuit (Eskimos) the right of self-government, and seeks to create an elected Senate that would give the various regions of Canada some check on the central government.

Mr Bourassa and Mr Mulroney have staked their futures on the accord, which was accepted by all of the other provincial premiers and native leaders. But Quebec nationalists, especially the Parti Quebecois leader, Jacques Parizeau, were quick to denounce the agreement, claiming that Mr Bourassa had given away too much. And it turns out that two of Mr Bourassa's most senior bureaucrats agree.

A tape-recording of a remarkable telephone conversation between the two advisers, during which they said their boss had 'caved in' to the English provinces and had worn out the knees of his trousers from begging, was delivered anonymously to a Quebec City radio station. The tape became an instant sensation in the referendum campaign.

Despite the organisation of celebrity 'Save Canada' committees, support for the 'yes' side is still on the slide. Canadians are telling pollsters that they don't trust Mr Mulroney and that they don't believe him when he says a defeat in the referendum means the end of Canada.

(Photograph omitted)