STRETCHED across five time zones and 5,000 miles of North America, Canada and its people are looking for the glue to hold their huge, and diverse country together.
On today's 125th anniversary of confederation, Canadians have never been more prosperous relative to other nations, more admired for their leadership in international peacekeeping, or more divided over the future of their country.
Canada is in crisis. Divisions over federal proposals that would reshape the government and Constitution are culminating in Parliament this month, with a possible national referendum on the subject in the fall. The nation's economy is still struggling out of recession with unemployment running around 11 percent. Nearly half of the residents in Quebec, the nation's second largest province, want to secede and form a French-speaking country.
Yet as difficult and diverse as these problems are, some analysts say they have roots in a deeper struggle within Canadians themselves - an effort to define what being a Canadian means and to redefine their country in that image. The two-year-long constitutional talks are an effort to remake the country along new lines and wash away a national crisis of identity that threatens unity, observers say.
"The sentiment of the Canadian identity is not strong enough, and it should be stronger if we want to keep this country together," says Gerald Beaudoin, a member of the Canadian Senate and chief architect of Canada's constitutional-reform package.
"I would argue that our biggest sense of identity, given our history, is that we're not Americans," says Maude Barlow, who heads the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based group opposed to the free-trade pact with the United States. "Well, being not something isn't enough," she says. "We are so ethnically, regionally, linguistically, and geographically diverse that one can honestly ask, `What's a Canadian?' and we've been going through that."
Historically a national asset, Canada's diversity seems to be dividing the nation at a critical period in its history. Quebec's Francophones, alienated by last year's failed Meech Lake constitutional accord, are looking to their provincial premier, Robert Bourassa, to coax the government toward a federal plan that will satisfy their demands to be seen as a "distinct society." The Meech accord was an attempt to keep Quebec within the Canadian federation.
But since the failure of Meech, Quebec is demanding more. And for two years the constitutional window has been open to demands from natives, provinces, women, and others; the new plan must satisfy them, too, if Canada is to be united.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark will meet July 3 with premiers from nine of the country's 10 provinces - Mr. Bourassa is boycotting the talks, awaiting a final offer from the government - to finalize a national-unity package of federal proposals. The leaders hope to break deadlocks over:
* Making Canada's Senate (which is currently appointed) into an elected lawmaking body that would give provinces equal representation.
* Meeting Quebec's demand for veto power over any constitutional changes after a new charter is adopted.
* Recognizing native peoples' "inherent right" to self-government.
* Eliminating trade barriers between provinces.
Mr. Mulroney says that if he is unable to get the premiers to agree on a unity package, his government will present its own proposals to Parliament by July 15. That would leave time to debate and approve the package before a national referendum and Quebec's October vote on the plan.
In the plan now under discussion, the federal government would give provinces control over immigration, cultural affairs, tourism, mining, and inland fisheries. The federal government would manage energy, foreign affairs, defense, and environmental and monetary policy. But Quebec in particular wants to control its energy and environmental policies, and is leery of native self-government. Constitutional changes must be approved by the legislatures of at least seven of 10 provinces representing at least 50
percent of Canada's population.
Even if such a plan were adopted by the country and approved by Quebec, the consequences of such actions are unpredictable and could create new fractures, Ms. Barlow and others say. They worry most that the division of federal powers among the provinces will hasten Canada's tearing apart. There is concern that the plan will not go far enough to meet a multilevel crisis of identity that includes:
* Increasing insecurity among Canadians over their love-hate relationship with the US. Drifting between continentalism and nationalism, they feel their superpower neighbor is overwhelming Canada culturally and economically, provoking a public backlash against the 1989 US-Canada free-trade deal.
* Rising regional and provincial loyalties that, combined with tight budgets and privatization, are eroding unifying institutions such as the national health-care and welfare systems and Canada's rail, air, and broadcast services.
* Growing cultural nationalism, especially among French-speaking Quebecois.
* Increasing demands from native groups, including Indians and Inuit, who want more autonomy, land, and recognition as a "third nation" within Canada.
As distressing to many as the political wrangling is the ebbing of attitudes many Canadians still cherish and identify as Canadian. One example is the apparently shrinking tolerance for minorities and differing points of view.
Canada witnessed a race riot in Toronto in May following US riots sparked by the acquittals of white Los Angeles police officers accused of beating a black man. The nation's first bombing of an abortion clinic came days later, also in Toronto.
"People in Canada always say we don't have a problem with racism or discrimination here," says Judy Rebik, who heads National Action Canada, the country's largest women's advocacy group. "But in a situation where you have rising unemployment and economic crunch ... racism will be a central issue. It's still being ignored by the government. It hasn't taken any role in the constitutional talks."
Underneath it all, however, what may be most alarming to Canadians about growing violence and intolerance are the comparisons these evoke between Canada and the US. Many Canadians say they feel Canada is a "kinder and gentler" place than their neighbor to the south.
"People all through our history have predicted we would eventually become part of the [United] States," Barlow says. "Today we're asking very hard questions, like, `How do we stay Canadian on the doorstep of the world's only remaining superpower?"'