Support for Canada's Unity Pact Begins to Look Uncertain

NOBODY in Harkirpal Singh Sara's neighborhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, should have any trouble telling how he will vote in the Oct. 26 national referendum that could decide whether Canada splits with Quebec or stays intact.

Mr. Sara feels so strongly about the coming vote on the constitutional-unity plan proposed Aug. 28 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and 10 provincial premiers that he spent $150 on signs to advertise his position.

"I have a big lawn sign on my yard, and a sticker on the rear window of my car saying `Vote NO to Constitutional Deal,' " says Sara, a retired teacher who immigrated from India in 1955. He complains the deal gives much to Quebec, but little to British Columbia.

He is hardly alone. Midway through an unprecedented eight-week campaign to rally Canadians to vote to remake the country's Constitution, the ranks of those opposed to the Charlottetown accord, as the proposals are known, are growing. A shift is occurring not only in British Columbia, but in every Canadian province, observers and surveys report.

The most vivid recent indicator of the shift was a poll released Saturday by Angus Reid Group, a Toronto firm, showing the accord failing by sizable majorities in three Canadian provinces: Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta. A simple majority in each of the 10 provinces is needed to ratify the deal. That support for the accord is so weak at this stage in two provinces other than Quebec is a worrisome trend for the government's "yes" coalition.

"The race is a tossup here," says Hans Brown, co-chair of a committee coordinating the "yes" vote drive in British Columbia. "When the stark choice is faced to support Charlottetown or risk breakup of the country, we feel the voters will choose the accord as a good, fair, honorable compromise," he says.

Others, however, are more worried.

"I have a gut feeling the accord is in serious trouble," says Richard Simeon, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. "You have to look at it province by province. In the most trouble, obviously, is Quebec. But there, and now in B.C., is a very big hole the `yes' side has to climb out of."

What surprises Mr. Simeon and others is the swiftness with which voters' mood has soured. As recently as late August, 58 percent of Canadians approved the deal and 25 percent opposed it with 17 percent undecided. Last week, however, "yes" votes had fallen 23 percentage points and opposition had risen 11 percentage points in a month.

"This is a profound shift," says John Wright, senior vice president of Angus Reid. "Whenever we see something this dramatic we sit up and take notice. It represents a sea change in public attitudes."

THE shift was especially dramatic in British Columbia, where 50 percent of residents last week said they would vote no, and only 34 percent yes, with 16 percent undecided. Only a month ago, British Columbia residents supported the Charlottetown deal by a 52-to-29 percent margin - almost a complete turnabout. Particularly upsetting to British Columbians like Sara, for example, is the accord's plan to guarantee Quebec's representation in Parliament, a move many say leaves their fast-growing province grossl y underrepresented in favor of Quebec.

The reasons for the nationwide shift are a crosscurrent of criticisms difficult to pinpoint, says Donna Dasko, vice president of Environics Research Group, a Toronto polling firm.

"It's small things, not major events," she says, like the magazine article by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau critical of decentralizing the government to suit Quebec. Mr. Simeon agrees: "It's been chipped at from so many sides."

But whatever the reasons, grass-roots opposition is spreading. Politically unconnected and philosophically unallied groups like the Reform Party, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, several native groups, and Mr. Trudeau are among the most visible dissenters. Their high-profile opposition has had an impact beyond their own constituencies, by making it politically acceptable to just say "no" to the accord, some opponents contend.

"Are you an enemy of Canada if you want to vote no?" asks Tom Flanagan, director of research for the Reform Party. "That became the issue in the crucial early stage.... And Canadians didn't like it."

It took Mulroney's broad coalition of three federal parties, business leaders, and others until Sept. 22 to officially kick off the "yes" campaign - nearly the midpoint of the eight-week campaign drive.

"The `yes' side was very smug," says Sharon Carstairs, who heads Manitoba's Liberal Party and is planning to vote no. "They forgot a very simple thing: that the public doesn't trust politicians anymore."

Indeed, Mulroney's approval rating across Canada was, for example, just 16 percent in June, according to an Environics survey. For this and similar reasons, the `yes' side has marshalled a team of seven well-known Canadians (not politicians) to help "educate" the public about the accord's benefits.

"We're going to be hearing a lot from the `yes' side," Dasko says, "they've got a lot of money and they'll be throwing a lot of money at [the campaign]."

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