Grand Center, Canada — The rolling hills, bush, farmland, and lakes look Canadian enough. But this corner of Alberta also resembles the terrain and conditions of Soviet Siberia - or so the United States military says. And therein lies a cruise missile testing tale.
The US and Canadian governments are putting the finishing touches to an agreement under which unarmed cruise missiles will be tested at the Cold Lake air weapons range here. The proposal, however, has split the local population just as it has divided Canadians as a whole.
A recent Gallup poll shows 52 percent of Canadians questioned don't want the American weapon tested here. And Grand Center schoolteacher Kathleen Walls agrees wholeheartedly with the critics:
''Canada has always been able to remain neutral in the eyes of the world . . . and by allowing the testing of the cruise missile here, it seems to me that we have taken a step forward in the nuclear arms race. I wish Canada could stand as a peaceful nation and not involve its people in this race.''
Jim Fitzpatrick, who runs a small bookshop here, takes the opposite point of view: ''The governments of the United States and associated countries are surrounded by people saying 'Let's quit and hide our heads in the sand and not worry about what the other guy does.' ''
Even if Ottawa and Washington quickly tie up the remaining loose ends of their agreement, the US cruise missiles are not likely to start flying low over the local countryside, hugging the contours about 100 feet above the ground, until next winter. But Canadians from Victoria to Newfoundland already find themselves being plunged into the global debate on the nuclear arms race, with Grand Center right in the middle.
Meanwhile, apparently disregarding public opinion, the Liberal government seems determined to push ahead with the weapons testing agreement. The opposition Progressive Conservatives are equally determined.
As the Progressive Conservatives' defense critic sees it, ''you can't get up and be preachy when you are contributing as little (to NATO) as we are.''
In NATO terms, the cruise missile is at the very least an important ''chip'' at the bargaining table in Geneva. Some 572 cruise and Pershing II missiles are due to begin deployment in West Europe before the end of this year unless an acceptable arms control agreement is first worked out with the Soviet Union. The new NATO missiles are intended to counter the Soviets' multiple-warhead SS-20 missiles - or to spur an agreement curtailing the Soviet weapons.
In the eyes of the NATO missiles' opponents, however, their planned deployment may be a catalyst for arousing the peace movement and making the arms race the major political issue of the 1980s. Already a number of European countries have felt the intense heat of peace movements opposed to new NATO missile deployments. And although it is too early to say what impact the Canadian peace groups will have here on the testing of the cruise, it is plain that they are getting ready to make their point.
For instance, claiming that the testing of the cruise infringes on his basic rights under Canada's new constitution, the head of one peace group in Canada plans to take the federal government to court over the issue.
Meanwhile, there is a big push in Canada to have the question of nuclear disarmament placed on the ballot in conjunction with civic elections. So far, a good number of municipalities have gone along with Operation Dismantle.
Nancy Burger, head of the Lakeland Coalition for Nuclear Awareness, stenuously objects to this ''tricky'' missile that, she says, will have a destabilizing effect on the arms race: ''The cruise missile coming home in our backyard finally crystallized it for me . . . and that is what the disarmament referendum is all about. . . . It's a grass-roots approach, because we have waited for government to solve this problem for 37 years and they haven't.''
''Arm yourself with information . . . it is the year of the cruise,'' remarks one local editorial writer wryly.