CANADA'S constitutional talks have reached a crucial stage in which the country's 10 provincial premiers soon will either deadlock over their differences or agree on a constitutional formula to entice Quebec to remain part of Canada.
After months of hard slogging through a seemingly endless series of meetings held across the nation since last fall, the talks are in their "critical weeks," says Sen. Gerald Beaudoin, chief parliamentary architect of the plan being debated by the premiers.
The coming weeks are particularly important, Senator Beaudoin says, because the political wind has shifted in the past few months. A recent Insight Canada Research poll showed that 63 percent of Quebeckers favor accepting a constitutional package of proposals recognizing Quebec as a distinct society within Canada. Fifty-five percent of voters nationwide now favor a package of proposals that would keep Quebec part of the federation.
"For the past two months, sovereignty [for Quebec] has been losing ground," Beaudoin says. "But we have to be very careful.... I think that we are in a very delicate situation right now; a major mistake might still be fatal and surveys may change."
Talks in Montreal resumed May 20 on just how to cede to Quebec federal powers such as immigration, culture, regional development, and employment training - and which powers should be divided up among other provinces. Last week the talks took several rapid strides with near agreement on an "inherent right to self-government" for Canada's Indians as well as creation of a "third order of government" within Canada that would be native-run. There was also agreement on new powers over federal spending to be ad ded to a reformed Senate.
This progress has added some urgency to solving elements still polarizing debate among provincial leaders: giving the Senate new powers and making it more representative; providing Quebec with a veto over some federal mandates; dividing up powers held by the federal government.
To encourage the premiers to overcome differences, a heavy new stick was submitted to Parliament May 15 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Conservatives: legislation to permit a national plebiscite on government proposals.
But because of the uncertain outcome of such a vote, if it were held, Conservatives say they would only use it as a last resort if the premiers cannot agree on a constitutional formula. Western premiers responded negatively to the plebiscite idea.
Whether there will be a national vote depends much on a tight time frame. Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark has set the end of May as the deadline for the required seven of 10 premiers, representing at least 50 percent of Canada's population, to reach agreement.
Observers say, however, that the May deadline is unlikely to hold, but that the end of June is an absolute cutoff. That would leave just enough time to work out a national plebiscite to be held before Labor Day - timing that could subsume a scheduled Oct. 26 referendum on sovereignty within Quebec. But some say the plebiscite would be no substitute for a substantive agreement.
"The alternative [to an agreement] is a breakdown, which is why the next three weeks are crucial," says Maude Barlow, who heads the Council of Canadians, an advocacy group involved in the talks. "It's not necessarily the end of the process. But for Clark it's crucial because if he doesn't make it on this, then the other political forces will start to come into play. What do you put into a referendum coming out of a failed process?"
Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, whose endorsement is essential to the success of federal proposals, has remained an elusive figure. He has refrained from participating in negotiations until the premiers decide on a package that is acceptable to him.
A consummate politician adept at dancing in and out of danger with Quebec's separatist party, Mr. Bourassa must also placate elements in his own Liberal Party that want him to draw a hard line with Canada. Though a federalist, Bourassa has pledged to hold an Oct. 26 referendum in Quebec on sovereignty to satisfy separatists, but has held open the option of changing it to a vote on any federal package that may emerge.
Without a plan approved by the other premiers, it will be difficult for Bourassa to persuade Quebec to remain within Canada, Beaudoin, Ms. Barlow, and others say. "If Bourassa takes one wrong step, he could find himself in a lot of hot water," Barlow says.
Despite the months of talks, she complains that the government has chosen to ignore ordinary Canadians, insisting on treading anew the path of the 1990 Meech Lake Accords that failed to gain provincial approval to recognize Quebec as distinct.
"It is my belief the premiers will come to a deal, but it may be a lot like the Meech Lake Accords," Barlow says. "All they're doing today is the same horse trading, patching things together. They don't have a game plan. They've just got their fingers crossed."