CANADA has reached a critical period in its history, with the next eight months likely to determine whether it will remain a united country or see Quebec split off to form a new nation.
Recommended revisions to Canada's Constitution will be delivered today to the House of Commons by a parliamentary committee. The revisions draw on conferences with "ordinary" citizens across Canada.
From these recommendations a constitutional amendment will be drafted, as early as May, that redistributes many federal powers to the provinces and recognizes Quebec as a "distinct" society. It will also address language and native issues, Senate reform, economic union, and a social charter.
The amendment is to be approved by Parliament, then by each of Canada's nine English-speaking provinces. Approval by seven provinces with at least 50 percent of the population would ratify most changes.
Then all eyes will be on Quebec.
In an Oct. 26 referendum, it will be French-speaking Quebec's turn to look at the constitutional amendment and vote - thumbs up or down - on Canada's future. Thumbs down could well lead to separation.
"What we are doing right now is the basis of the Canada of the next century," says Pierre Anctil, director general of Quebec's ruling Liberal Party. "The next few months are crucial for the future of Canada."
Already a battle for the hearts, minds, and votes of Quebeckers is intensifying in Montreal, where public opinion seems as volatile as in New Hampshire before the recent United States presidential primary.
Forty-six percent of Quebeckers favor independence, according to a poll last week by the Center for Public Opinion Research, an independent Montreal polling firm. The peak in favor of independence was 64 percent after the Meech Lake Accords failed in 1990.
Meech Lake was meant to pave the way for Quebec to finally ratify the 1982 Constitution that was "patriated" from England by then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The accords' failure left sour feelings and fanned the pro-independence movement. Since then, however, a poor economy and studies critical of independence have dampened enthusiasm.
Leading the charge to keep the public's separatist feeling high against a host of unbelievers is the Parti Qucois (PQ), whose officials say an independent Quebec is viable despite predictions of economic hardship and a tripling of debt to more than $140 billion.
Bernard Landry, PQ vice president, cites his own polls showing 60 percent of Quebeckers favor independence.
"We are expecting a fantastic material positive output" after independence, Mr. Landry says, arguing that being part of a federal system has restrained Quebec's prosperity. "We have been assessing the situation for years. Most of us were former good Canadian nationals 25 years ago. So if we did change, we had very material reasons."
An economist at the University of Quebec at Montreal, he nevertheless argues much more than economics is involved. "The bottom of the matter is national identity," Mr. Landry says. "A nation wants to be free. It's an eternal trend that, when a human group is a nation, you will never accept to be the province of another nation."
At the opposite pole is Robert Libman, leader of the Equality Party. Although it holds just three seats in Quebec's provincial parliament, the Equality Party represents much of the English-speaking minority and is a voice for keeping Quebec in the federation. Mr. Libman says the economic and international political costs of independence are higher than the PQ is letting on.
"Quebeckers must know, they must be told, that there is a definite price to pay for independence," Libman shouted to about 275 supporters at a recent rally to get the federalist vote out in October. "[PQ leader] Jacques Parizeau is not being honest with the majority of Quebeckers."
Left on the middle ground is Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, a canny politician with a knack, many observers say, for astutely gauging the winds of public opinion and going with them.
Mr. Anctil says the Liberal Party under Mr. Bourassa has a clear agenda: a new constitutional structure that recognizes the province as "distinct" and gives it new powers to back that up. But, Anctil says, the party will reserve judgment until the "bottom line" constitutional plan is ratified by the provinces.
Libman and Landry both decry this as equivocation. The Liberals now appear to be leaning toward federalism. But whichever side they support, pollsters and analysts say, the Liberals' verdict will heavily influence the referendum.
One heavyweight not yet fully represented in the debate is Quebec's vibrant and influential business community. Some businessmen are reported to be organizing to advocate a federalist approach. Libman, for one, says he thinks businessmen will wait until closer to the referendum before making their pitch and that their opinion of the economic costs of independence will carry weight.
Perhaps the biggest risk, according to Libman, is that emotional, nationalistic fervor will overcome rational discourse in the days before the vote. But Anctil has little doubt that rationality will prevail.
"Quebeckers and Canadians are realistic and pragmatic people," Anctil says. "They'll come to an agreement. And if they don't, we'll find a way to preserve stability and to move to a new form, a new political structure, even if it's out of the existing constitutional context."