Canada's Time to Mend

CANADIAN Prime Minister Mulroney sounded the right note in a televised address Saturday to a nation troubled by its failure to ratify the Meech Lake accord - a proposal that would have brought French-speaking Quebec voluntarily into the 1982 Canadian Constitution. ``It is the time to mend divisions and heal wounds and reach out to fellow Canadians,'' he said. ``There is much to reflect on before we try again to amend the Constitution.''

The 26 million people of Canada, French- or English-speaking, are so fed up with a decade of constitutional wrangling that a period of political quiet and reflection could be helpful. Canadians of all sorts need to appreciate more their own diversity of cultures and interests and accept them.

There is no historical necessity for Quebec to break off from Canada. But, unless the underlying affection of many French-Canadians for Canada is somehow encouraged, alienation could grow and Quebec will move toward greater separation.

United States policymakers may want to dig out a 1977 secret State Department document outlining alternate outcomes of the drive for a sovereign Quebec at that time by the freshly elected Parti Qu'ebecois government of Ren'e Levesque.

That report, obtained recently through a freedom-of-information request by a French-Canadian writer, described ``maintenance of the status quo'' as the ``least likely'' possibility. This is probably true today as well.

Other outcomes discussed were ``devolution of powers to all provinces'' from the federal government, ``devolution of powers to Quebec only,'' ``political sovereignty with economic association,'' and ``unilateral declaration of independence.''

Under Quebec's Liberal premier, Robert Bourassa, the last outcome is improbable. Like many fellow French-Canadians, he is cautious, conservative. If nationalistic emotions in Quebec do not become too strong, this Harvard-trained economist will probably seek more powers gradually from the central government rather than risk the economic disruption that might arise from rapid separation. Canada will become even a looser federation.

At the moment, the opposition parties in Ottawa and other critics are trying to blame Prime Minister Mulroney for the defeat of the Meech Lake accord. Though he may have committed a tactical mistake in waiting until the last minute to rescue it, Mulroney deserves credit for his political courage in tackling the need to get Quebec's signature on the 1982 Constitution. Canada needs more such statesmanlike efforts and less provincialism.

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