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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living