BOSTON — CANADA'S provincial premiers broke a months-long deadlock early last week to arrive at a constitutional-reform deal that would both dramatically change the structure of Canadian government and at the same time appeal to Quebec.
But after two days of silence, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who has a reputation for blowing with political winds and keeping his options open, showed Thursday how inscrutable he could be during a nationally broadcast press conference.
"We find that there is an undeniable effort that is being made by our partners to meet Quebec's demands," Mr. Bourassa said optimistically, before countering: "It is true that in certain cases it doesn't seem to be satisfactory. And we have to look at that. I've indicated a certain number of hesitations."
Waxing warm, then cool on various parts of the plan, Bourassa refused to be pinned down on whether he favored the agreement's overall thrust - or even whether he would now meet with other premiers to craft it into a national unity plan to present to Quebec for approval or rejection in an Oct. 26 referendum.
Bourassa has boycotted all constitutional discussions since June 1990, demanding that the other nine provinces put forward a final offer for Quebec to consider. At a minimum, he has said, it must provide the substance of the failed 1990 Meech Lake Accords by recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society" and giving it a veto over future constitutional changes.
But the new plan would do far more, many analysts say, including carving up federal powers over culture, housing, tourism, immigration, forestry, mining, and job training. Bourassa worried some by describing the hard-fought plan as a "preliminary text" that needs more discussion on issues including:
* Senate reform and Quebec's loss of seats under the plan.
* When and how a constitutional veto granted Quebec and other provinces could be used.
* Under what circumstances new provinces could be created, and whether or not such creation would be subject to the constitutional veto held by each province.
* Legal recognition of a native right to self-government that would be followed by a five-year period of negotiations after which courts may rule on native-provincial disputes.
Bourassa's views are key, analysts say, because although he says he wants Quebec to remain part of Canada, sovereignist forces in his own party as well as volatile separatist sentiments outside it could force him away from a deal that the rest of Canada can live with.
"There are two possibilities for Bourassa," says Guy Laforest, a professor of political science at Laval University in Quebec City. "He would take any deal that is reasonably close to Meech - and this one is. The questions he will ask himself are: Can I sell it in Quebec - and can I win the next election?"
Yet Bourassa's ability to meet political demands within Quebec and nationally, all without defining his own position clearly enough for critics to attack, elicits disgust as well as admiration from ordinary Quebeckers and political opponents alike.
"I don't like him and the confusion he has brought," says Louise Gratton, a Montreal resident. "He is trying to please everybody without saying anything. His position has never been clear, and right now we have to be clear."
Parti Qucois separatists were predictably quick to condemn the compromise plan and to try to cut Bourassa off from it by painting the deal as completely unacceptable.
"I think it won't fly higher than one inch," says Bernard Landry, vice president of the opposition Parti Qucois that favors Quebec's separation from Canada. "I think even the liberals and conservatives won't accept it."
"If he felt he could not sell the plan there would be no referendum on sovereignty in 1992," Professor Laforest contends, adding that he thinks Bourassa will play for time to weigh popular sentiment in Quebec. "His bottom line is that he doesn't want to be remembered as the man who ruptured Canada."