THERE is a sense of inevitability in Canada today as the country confronts its perennial dilemma - holding the country together in the face of regional forces that seem stronger by far than forces of unity. Last June's failure of the Meech Lake accord, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's last-ditch attempt to give constitutional recognition to Quebec as a ``distinct society'' within a united Canada, has deepened the conviction that radical change is inevitable.
``No one in Quebec believes things can be the same. Not one single person,'' says Norman Webster, editor of the Montreal Gazette, an influential English-language newspaper in Quebec.
The status quo is no longer an option. Neither is the ``distinct-society'' approach. The choice is between an independent Quebec and a Quebec that would be sovereign in most ways, but would still be associated with Canada in an economic and political union.
When the former Parti Quebecois government called a referendum in Quebec in 1980, the province rejected the sovereignty-association idea by 60 percent to 40. Today, 66 percent of Quebeckers support sovereignty-association, according to a November poll by Environics Research Group Ltd. for the Toronto Star, Montreal's La Presse, and the CTV network.
Support for independence has climbed to 58 percent - the first time most Quebeckers have supported it. If non-French residents are excluded, Franco-Quebeckers favoring sovereignty-association are about 80 percent, with 70 percent for independence.
As a cause, sovereignty (or independence) has long since ceased to be an ideal given over to artists, intellectuals, and miscellaneous radical groups. It has become very much a middle-class cause, with growing support in the business community.
Lysiane Gagnon, of La Presse, a Quebec political columnist, notes young Quebec artists' lack of involvement in the independence movement. ``Most of them just take it [sovereignty] for granted, as a long overdue event that will inevitably occur,'' she says. ``But they don't feel the need to write or sing about it.''
A similar feeling of inevitability is spreading, albeit more slowly, in English Canada. As an issue, national unity is completely overshadowed by economic concerns of recession, unemployment, taxation, and environment. English Canadians are divided on the independence issue. The Environics poll found that 20 percent of non-Quebeckers support independence for Quebec, while 23 percent favor sovereignty-association.
While English Canada shrugs, Quebec - through its Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of Quebec - is redefining the issue. The 36-member commission is conducting hearings prior to drafting a new constitution for Quebec.
What happens once a constitution is drafted will depend in large measure on the leadership of Robert Bourassa, Quebec's Liberal premier. Mr. Bourassa is probably the closest thing to a federalist there is in Quebec provincial politics. Most liberals expected him to persuade the commission to propose new constitutional arrangements to keep Quebec in Canada.
But ill health has led to speculation he will resign. Not only does he have no logical successor as Liberal leader and premier, there is no one else in sight to champion a pro-Canada line.
Prime Minister Mulroney's influence is waning. In Quebec, his home province, polls show his Progressive Conservative party now trails the Bloc Quebecois, a breakaway coalition of federal members of Parliament. Across the country, Mr. Mulroney's Tories have sunk to just 14 percent in the two most recent polls. At present, no political party commands enough support to rally Canadians in defense of unity.
Oscar Peterson, the Canadian jazz pianist, struck a political chord two weeks ago in a letter to the Toronto Globe and Mail in which he wrote: ``This country is too great to become simply a confused and beleaguered plot of land, populated with uncared-for and homeless people, disenfranchised aboriginals and unrepresented francophones and westerners.... Listen to the people, Ottawa. They have been trying to send you a message.''