Canada's protracted dithering about whether it's one nation or two seems about to end. Until now, it has been up to the politicians. But on Oct. 26, for the first time, Canadian voters will have their say on a plan to settle the long-simmering debate over the status of French-speaking Quebec.
In effect, Canada is betting its future on a single vote. The proposed constitutional changes, which were agreed to by provincial premiers on Aug. 28, are expected to win lopsided endorsements in the nine English-speaking provinces. But the outcome will be decided in French-speaking Quebec, where the vote looks like a cliffhanger.
`DISTINCT SOCIETY.' A slim 43-39 approval margin in the latest poll suggests that the Quebecois, worried about the economic costs of a breakup, may also be tilting toward Canadian unity. If the Quebecois vote oui, they will signal their acceptance of proposed changes in federal institutions and guarantees of provincial authority in areas such as mining and urban affairs, designed to keep Quebec within Canada.
But if Quebec nationalists succeed in their campaign for a non, Canada will plunge into political and economic turmoil, facing the specter of an acrimonious breakup. In the past, political leaders always managed to restart negotiations after the collapse of formulas for unity such as the 1987 Meech Lake Accord, which recognized Quebec as a "distinct society." But this time, anger among grass-roots voters over a rebuff would likely rule out any new attempt to keep Quebec in the fold. "The risks in this referendum are very high," says Thomas d'Aquino, president of the Business Council on National Issues.
With so much at stake, d'Aquino is mobilizing corporate chief executives to play "a very active role" in the debate. Even in Quebec, "the business community is solidly behind the accord," says Guy Saint-Pierre, CEO of SNC Group Inc., the Montreal-based engineering giant.
Rejection would trigger "extreme downward pressure on the Canadian dollar," warns Lloyd Atkinson, chief economist of the Bank of Montreal, "and the Bank of Canada would feel duty-bound to drive up interest rates." A non vote would also deal a blow to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. An independent Quebec would have to apply separately for NAFTA membership. And a referendum fiasco, by damaging Prime Minister Brian Mulroney politically, could weaken his ability to push NAFTA through Parliament.
Just two years ago, opposition in English Canada to Quebec's demands for special status helped kill the Meech Lake Accord. But now, with a deep recession and 11.6% unemployment, English-speaking Canadians are anxious to put the constitutional wrangling behind them.
In Quebec, the campaign for a oui is spearheaded by Premier Robert Bourassa, backed by his Liberal Party's strong endorsement of the proposals. But the pro-independence Parti Quebecois, which leads the Liberals in the polls, is bitterly attacking the plan. "I'm sure the proposals will lose in Quebec," says Jean Campeau, chairman of paper and pulp maker Domtar Inc. and a prominent opponent of the plan. He may be right. But with the province's economy reeling from the recession, most observers believe that the Quebecois, too, will end up voting for a united Canada.