Canada's Meech Lake Agreement Bogs Down in Manitoba

A SINGLE Cree Indian could have torpedoed a crucial Canadian constitutional agreement. Elijah Harper, the only native American member of the provincial legislature in Manitoba, blocked for eight days, until Wednesday, legislative debate on a bill to ratify the Meech Lake Accord with constitutional changes that define the province of Quebec as a ``distinct society.'' The New Democratic Party (NDP) member plans more legislative maneuvers to delay and thereby kill the measure.

``It is stalled,'' said an official in the NDP caucus. Gary Filmon, the Conservative premier of Manitoba, has said he will not bend the legislative rules to ensure passage by the deadline Saturday midnight.

Mr. Harper has the backing of the Assembly of First Nations, representing 500,000 Indians in Canada. His objection is that the accord ignores Indian constitutional demands, including self-government on reservations.

Newfoundland also has yet to ratify the accord, though planning a legislative vote today. Premier Clyde Wells has said that, if Manitoba shows no sign of ratifying the accord, he may not hold the vote.

Should the accord fail, the consequences for Canada could be serious. There is much speculation that separatism in Quebec would be so strengthened that the province would move quickly toward sovereignty. Robert Bourassa, Quebec's premier, says a special Liberal committee looking into post-Meech scenarios will meet next week and map out the strategy for coming months.

The Progressive Conservative (PC) government in Ottawa of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney also could be endangered. Three PC members from Quebec have chosen to sit as independents as a result of the dispute, and two more refuse to join the Conservative caucus. That leaves only a majority of 14 for the PC in the House of Commons, and there could be more defections from the remaining 59 Quebec Conservative members. Mr. Mulroney could lose his majority, and if the defecting members voted against the government, it would fall.

In a speech to the House of Commons Wednesday, Mulroney noted that eight provinces representing 94 percent of Canada's people have approved the pact.

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