In what can only be called a stunning election result, Canadian voters have called for a new sense of urgency and activism from their government in tackling the nation's pressing social and economic challenges - high unemployment, inflation, punishing interest rates, and mounting budget deficits.
But whether the ouster of the ruling Liberal Party and the election of the Progressive Conservative Party, under the leadership of Montreal businessman Brian Mulroney, will mean profound alteration in Canadian social or economic policies seems in doubt. Mr. Mulroney, after all, has promised to leave in place and, in fact, upgrade Canada's extensive and costly mosaic of social-welfare and ''safety net'' programs. Moreover, the very size of his party's parliamentary victory - snapping up at least 211 seats out of a total 282 electoral districts, as of this writing - will present the new government with difficult administrative hurdles when it formally takes office sometime in the next few weeks. Mr. Mulroney campaigned on a vague program which by itself does not fully satisfy his own party's stalwarts, who favor a more decidedly free-market course for Canada. But at the same time, Mulroney's somewhat general position on issues captured votes from many liberals, who felt that the current government had proved itself ineffective in resolving the nation's serious economic problems. The Liberal Party has controlled the government since 1980 - in fact, except for a brief Tory interlude, since 1963.
The Liberals knew that they faced an uphill run when former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau stepped down from office after mounting public unease. His successor, Toronto lawyer John Turner, although to the right of Mr. Trudeau politically, was never able to capture the imagination of the electorate. This week's election can be called as much a defeat of Mr. Turner - and the Liberal Party in general - as an endorsement of Mr. Mulroney.
Mulroney faces a formidable task. More than 1.5 million Canadians are unemployed - some 11 percent of the work force. And the budget deficit is proportionally higher than in the United States.
Mulroney seems on a sound course in seeking a better business climate. That means, among other things, forging better relations with Washington, as he has indicated will be a first priority. Trade between the two nations is expected to reach $110 billion this year.
The more trade the better for both sides. That means curbing regulations and laws that hinder commerce and direct investment in Canadian companies and, particularly, ones that discourage development of energy-related resources.
Still, that does not mean that Mulroney should give up on seeking a more cooperative effort between the two nations in finding a solution to acid rain, a longtime objective of the Liberals.
Both sides also need to work out a mutually satisfactory compromise regarding steel import quotas and restrictions on fishing by Canadians in US waters. Nor should the Mulroney government be indifferent to protecting Canada's cultural base from the financial clout of its large neighbor to the south.