The Political Cost of Canada's Compromise

THE new agreement that promises to end Canada's constitutional gridlock is fragile and it will require maximum political support from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the 10 provincial premiers who crafted it if it is to be ratified.

Despite quick acclaim from an array of Canadian political and business leaders - and polls showing Canadians badly want to end the two-year wooing of Quebec to remain part of Canada - the public still might balk at the hard-won deal, constitutional experts and pollsters warn.

While admired by some for its mutual concessions, the deal has drawn down the political net worth of some premiers in their home provinces. In particular, the deal may have left Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa with a difficult sales pitch since nationalist sentiment has surged recently despite a weak economy.

An Aug. 24 poll shows how far Mr. Bourassa must go, says Claude Gauthier, vice president of the Centre de Recherche Sur Opinion Publique, a Montreal polling firm. Of those who had an opinion on the Aug. 22 agreement, 55 percent were against it, with only 45 percent favored it. Nearly a third were still undecided.

"The real question is whether people say `look what we got and look how pleased we should be' or `look what the other guys got and we didn't get,' " says Richard Simeon, a University of Toronto political scientist. "If [Mulroney, native leaders, and the premiers] let it just sit there, it will get criticized to death pretty quickly." He and others say it will be necessary for the premiers to "go stumping" for the proposed pact, which would rewrite the Constitution.

Unlike the infamous Meech Lake accord that failed in June 1990, this "son of Meech" would not only recognize Quebec's distinct status, but also:

* Reform the Senate to meet the demands of Alberta and other western provinces for greater representation, and greater powers over natural resource development. The Senate would change from an appointed, nearly powerless institution to an equal, elected body with six senators from each province and one from each territory.

* Guarantee that Quebec retain 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons, though its 25 percent share of Canada's 27 million people is shrinking.

* Give Quebec and other provinces a veto over future changes to federal institutions and the creation of new provinces.

* Give to aboriginal Canadians the right to negotiate self-government with federal and provincial governments, and after five years, allow the courts to preside over unsettled demands.

* Give over to Quebec and other provinces powers over mining, tourism, housing, recreation, regional development, municipal affairs, job training, and forestry.

"There should be moderate support for this deal in terms of its substance," says Donna Dasko, vice president at Environics Research Group, a national polling firm. "If there remains consensus among the premiers, and they vigorously support the deal, then it has a good chance."

But British Columbia's Michael Harcourt is in trouble at home, criticized for giving up too many seats in the House of Commons. In Alberta, there is unhappiness with Premier Donald Getty, who fought hard for equal representation in the Senate, but conceded additional seats in the House of Commons to Ontario and Quebec, a move that some feel countered Alberta's Senate gains.

There is also some native opposition. While Ovid Mercredi, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, which represents Canada's roughly half million Indians living on reservations, was pleased with the deal, many others were not.

Davis Rice, a council member and community leader on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve in Quebec just South of Montreal, worries that the final wording of the deal might include provincial authority over the reserve, infringing on longstanding Mohawk ties and treaty arrangements with the federal government.

But the bigger problem is convincing Quebeckers, roughly half of whom now favor independence in some form. Bourassa faces pressure not only from swelling nationalism in the province, but also must ride herd on the "youth wing" of his own party at a convention late this month.

Though current legislation requires by Oct. 26 a provincial referendum on whether Quebec should separate from Canada, Bourassa is thought likely to push for a change to instead permit a vote on the new constitutional deal. The Liberal youth wing, however, wants a vote on sovereignty, as does the opposition Parti Quebecois, which has scorned the agreement. The wording of the referendum must be decided by Quebec's legislature by Sept. 9.

Others say, however, there is another possibility - that Bourassa will postpone the vote altogether.

"Bourassa will want to gain some time, perhaps hold the referendum in the spring," says Rejean Pelletier, a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City. "He's already said he prefers not to have a referendum, than to have a referendum he will lose."

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